Nourish

Fighting cancer dish by dish

The 13 Healthiest Holiday Gifts

Eco-friendly, health-promoting, affordable and useful -- who could ask for more?

At a time when retailers in want us to worry about holiday gifts, it occurs to me that everyone I know has everything they need – except, perhaps, for health and happiness. So this year, why not give gifts that may – at least to some extent – help your loved ones achieve these blessed states? 

They don’t have to cost much, leave but a tiny ecological footprint, and yet can make friends and family feel loved and appreciated.

Here are my three key criteria for choosing gifts:

  • The gift should promote the physical and/or emotional health of the person I am giving it to. Since I am a keen promoter of cancer prevention, it should help to bolster its recipient’s defenses against cancer;
  • It should be relatively inexpensive, so that the “giftee” is not burdened with a sense of guilt and obligation to reciprocate;
  • It should be either entirely consumable, or take up as little room as possible, so as not to clutter up the life of its recipient.

Here goes (by the way, I do not benefit in any way from endorsing these products – I recommend them purely to share the joy of using them with you!). 

1. Anti-Cancer Food Basket

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A health-food basket is a thoughtful gift for anyone dealing with cancer, but this one is particularly useful as it contains nothing but foods that are thought to have anti-cancer properties, including green tea, turmeric, premium dark chocolate, kale chips, roasted edamame beans, cashews and cranberries. It can be ordered from CWellness, a new website created by colon-cancer survivor Jeff Sirlin. “When I was going through treatment, it drove me crazy when people would send me useless gifts like flowers, balloons, gift certificates at stores I would never go to,” Jeff explains. “They wanted to help and show their support, but I realized there really wasn’t a practical gift to give people dealing with cancer. Hence the idea for the wellness baskets arose.” If your budget is limited, you can of course assemble your own anti-cancer food basket.

2. Glass Food Storage Containers

Glass food storage containers make supremely useful kitchen accessories. What’s so healthy about them? Unlike plastic containers, they don’t contain estrogen-like compounds such as bisphenol-A that can leach into food, especially when heated in a microwave. (I have written about the estrogenic effects of kitchen plastics here, here and here.) Glass containers are microwave-proof and even look attractive on the dining table. Go for containers with leak-proof snap-on lids. Available from kitchen stores, Amazon and (at a very reasonable price) Costco.

3. Wooden/Bamboo Chopping Boards

Since we’re on the subject of eliminating plastics from the kitchen: wooden or bamboo cutting boards are natural, stylish objects that can enhance your giftee’s cooking enjoyment. On the health front, they don’t contain the estrogenic compounds mentioned above. Moreover, it’s thought that wooden chopping boards may be more resistant to microbes than plastic boards, though not all experts agree. Natural boards are easy to clean if scrubbed with a sponge in hot, soapy water. If your immune system has been weakened by cancer treatments and you need to be extra-vigilant about germs, a very dilute bleach solution is best for disinfecting cutting boards. My favorite material is bamboo, which is denser and harder-wearing than wood, making it less likely to warp or splinter. (Ever had wood chips in your chopped parsley? I have, and don’t recommend it.)

4. Cast-Iron Cookware

When it comes to cookware, I like mine to be as natural as possible: glass, ceramic, stainless steel and iron. Alas, most people threw out their iron cookware in the 1960s when easy-care non-stick coatings (à la Teflon) became all the rage. However, the chemicals in these coatings may be carcinogenic when the pans are heated excessively or when the coatings are damaged. (See this CancerDietitian.com article.) A few years ago, pans with ceramic coatings were developed as a healthy alternative, but I don’t like using them: although they are meant to be anti-adhesive, food sticks to them and the coating gets damaged eventually. Cast-iron pans, on the other hand, contain no synthetic materials and are extremely hard wearing (if you cut in them, the only thing you’ll damage is your knife!). Once they are well-seasoned (those made by Lodge come pre-seasoned), food rarely sticks to them unless the pan is too hot. They are easy to clean – soak briefly in water and wash with a sponge or soft brush. (Avoid using detergent, as this will remove the seasoning from cast-iron cookware.) Their only drawback is that they can be quite heavy and you may need to use both hands – and a thick oven mitt! – to lift them.

5. Stainless Steel Water Bottle

One more way to prevent your food and drink coming into contact with plastics is to trade plastic water bottles for stainless steel bottles. Researchers have found that the estrogenic chemical bisphenol-A can leach from the bottle into the water, especially when the water is warm (this can happen when water bottles are kept in hot cars in the summer or are stored incorrectly). Stainless steel bottles aren’t just safer and hard-wearing, they also eliminate the need to lug water bottles home from the store. And if enough people switch to steel from plastic bottles, we may even be able to make a dent in the 34.6 billion single-serving plastic water bottles Americans buy each year, 80% of which currently land in landfills or incinerators and don’t get recycled.

6. Microplane Zester-Grater

This is my all-time favorite kitchen gadget for getting the most out of my anti-cancer ingredients. Its flat, tiny teeth grate lemon and orange zest into the most heart-breakingly tender flakes containing only the fruits’ essential oils but leaving the bitter pith on the fruit. It also does a wonderful job with dark chocolate (perfect for dusting over desserts or cappucino) and the occasional Parmesan. Whenever I can’t find my garlic press, I even use it to grate garlic. But my favorite application is for grating fresh ginger, which it converts into a fiberless puree that blends perfectly with sauces, stews and smoothies and does away with painstaking grating on coarse box graters that retain 90% of the ginger while shredding your knuckles raw… As an additional benefit, it’s dish-washer proof — mine has gone through 100s of washes in the three years I’ve had it and is no worse for wear. Buy from kitchen stores, Amazon or manufacturer Microplane.

7. Miniature Herb Garden

Fresh herbs growing on a window sill don’t just add a cheery spot of color to your kitchen and a burst of flavor to your food. Herbs are also a powerhouse of protective nutrients that can reinforce your body’s defenses against cancer. For instance, labiates, the family of leafy herbs that include mint, thyme, marjoram, oregano, basil and rosemary, contain essential oils with anti-inflammatory properties; they are thought to encourage cancer cells to self-destruct and may reinforce conventional cancer treatments. Apiums, the group of herbs that includes parsley, contain antioxidant compounds such as apigenin which have been shown in laboratory studies to inhibit angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors with nutrients — something we want to avoid). Most of these can grow in pots indoors or in a small kitchen garden; many – such as rosemary, thyme and chives – are perennial and will feed you for a long time. Three or four pots of kitchen herbs make an inexpensive and thoughtful gift.

8. Eight-Week Mindfulness Program

My friend Lucy gave me the most wonderful birthday present last year: a copy of Mindfulness, An Eight-Week Plan For Finding Peace In A Frantic World, along with the offer to be my “mindfulness buddy” for the duration of the eight-week program. Every week we would In our own time) work through a chapter of this book – an excellent introduction to mindfulness practice as a tool to cope with depression, anxiety and crazy-busyness – and on a prearranged day we would compare notes, in writing, allowing both of us to benefit from the other’s perspective. The experience changed my life, deepened my friendship with Lucy and remains a daily inspiration. The book — which has a foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn — comes with a CD to guide you; I have transferred mine onto my smartphone and carry it with me wherever I go. To find out more about the book and its authors, visit the book’s website: http://franticworld.com/.

9. A Journal

No longer the remit of secretive teenage girls, it has become quite acceptable for fully-grown adults to write a journal. Indeed, a growing body of research attests therapeutic value to keeping journaling, which can help reduce stress, process one’s feelings and better understand oneself. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that women with breast cancer who wrote about all of their feelings reported the fewest symptoms and had the fewest cancer-related visits to their doctors. A more recent study published in The Oncologist showed that even one twenty-minute writing session may help change the way people with cancer think and feel about their disease; moreover, three weeks later, it still has a positive effect on the person’s quality of life. (For more on the benefits of journaling for cancer patients read this article.)

10. Yoga Mat & CD/DVD

This is the ideal gift for people who need a calming influence in their lives but don’t have the time or money to sign up at a yoga studio. A yoga roll takes up next to no space in most homes and can quickly be unfurled in a warm, quiet spot. You might want to avoid a mat made with PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, a material that’s used to manufacture the less-expensive “sticky” yoga mats and has been associated with several types of cancer. (See this article about “eco-friendly” yoga mats.) If your budget allows, a yoga CD or DVD to complete the present. You can find highly rated yoga programs at Amazon; better still, if you know a good yoga instructor, ask them to recommend one.

11. Home-Made Gift Vouchers

Unlike retail-store vouchers, which we often give to people when we can’t think of anything more personal, home-made vouchers come straight from the heart. They’re a great present for cash-strapped children and teenagers to give to their relatives; the vouchers shown here (given by my 10-year-old son to my husband for his last birthday) include a favorite home-cooked meal, a gluten-free cake, a joint bike ride, an “ultimate bike clean” and breakfast in bed. Among adults, gifts can include the offer of a house-clean or errands – especially if the recipient of your gift is weakened by cancer treatments. Or, if your giftee wants to get more exercise but lacks motivation, you could give them a booklet of vouchers for ten 30-minute walks together; this not only provides plenty of healthy exercise (as this wonderful video shows), but also provides a precious opportunity for the two of you to connect at a human level.

12. Healthy Home-Made Treats (dairy- and gluten-free)


Another favorite holiday gift for The Person Who Has Everything is candy. How about personalizing this by giving them something money can’t buy: healthy, home-made treats? The picture to the left shows elegant dark chocolate thins I often make, called “mendiants”. A mendiant is a traditional French Christmas confection composed of a chocolate disk studded with nuts and dried fruits representing the four mendicant or monastic orders of the Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans and Carmelites. Each of the nuts and dried fruits used refer to the color of monastic robes with tradition dictating raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnut for the Augustins, dried fig for Franciscans and almond for Carmelite.

Mendiants require no more work than melting some dairy- and gluten-free chocolate (go as dark as you dare; I use 80-85% cacao content), tea-spooning it onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper and sprinkling the wet chocolate with nuts, seeds and dried fruits of your choice (I used cranberries, pumpkin seeds, goji berries, hazelnuts and almond slivers, but you could also try pieces of fig or prune, candied lemon/orange peel or ginger). After chilling these for 20 minutes, they can be arranged artfully on a plate, covered with food wrap or, more decoratively, with a sheet of cellophane and handed to their recipient.

13. Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet

Lastly (and somewhat self-servingly — sorry), if your giftee is a wannabe cook, why not give them a copy of my book, Zest for Life: The Mediteranean Anti-Cancer Diet? It’s a two-in-one nutrition guide and recipe book that recounts my own cancer journey (early-stage cervical cancer 13 years ago), offers an evidence-based discussion of the link between food and cancer, followed by recipes for 150 easy, tasty and healthy recipes anchored in the traditional Mediterranean Diet. Some of the recipes can be found on my website, where I have also posted videos showing me cooking dishes from Zest (among others, this seasonal recipe for gluten-free gingerbread cookies).

My last piece of holiday advice: don’t drive yourself crazy with lavish holiday preparations. It’s not the gifts, greeting cards or decorations that people will remember you for, but the relaxed, convivial, authentic time they spent with you! 

Happy Holidays!

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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