Capt. Lori W. Maggioni
Deputy Chief, Nutrition Care Division
Eisenhower Army Medical Center

Enjoying food in the company of family and friends is one of the things most special about the holiday season. When it comes to lightening up recipes, it is important to understand how to keep flavor when reducing fat, sugar or sodium. One way is through the addition of spices, herbs or other flavorings such as citrus. It is not about giving up everything that is tasty, just about making a few adjustments.

On average in this country, we consume about two times more salt than is recommended by health professionals. Too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure and has been linked to coronary heart disease, so it makes sense to cut down on your salt intake. It is amazing how quickly your taste buds adjust once you start to reduce the salt content in your foods.

Fortunately, there are so many ways to add flavor to dishes besides the salt shaker. Whether it's rosemary, basil, tarragon or cilantro, fresh and dried herbs are one of the quickest, easiest ways to punch up the flavor of foods. Chopped or diced aromatic vegetables -- onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, leeks, peppers, and celery -- are a wonderful way to create base flavors in soups, stews, sauces and stir-fry recipes. Be sure to crumble dried herbs before using to release fragrant flavor and aroma.

One way to have fresh herbs last longer is to put 'em on ice. Place one tablespoon chopped robust herbs -- lavender, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, or bay leaf -- in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Cover to about two-thirds full with broth, oil, white wine, water or coconut water, then freeze. Once frozen, place ice cubes in zip-top freezer bags. Use one or two frozen cubes in soups, stews, sauces, roasted vegetables or omelets.

Research has shown incorporating spices into your diet can have a number of health benefits. Oregano, rosemary and turmeric steal the spotlight because of their high antioxidant levels and cancer-fighting properties. Ginger and peppermint have been used throughout history to treat everything from nausea and motion sickness to pain and inflammation, and they definitely have their place during cold and flu season.

Cinnamon is one of the most important spices used daily by people all over the world. In addition to being an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and cardiovascular-disease-lowering compound, cinnamon has been reported to have positive effects on blood sugar levels and neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Try a sprinkle on your morning oatmeal, yogurt, baked sweet potatoes or even in your smoothie.

Once you start to incorporate more variety of herbs and spices in your diet, you will never look back and begin to reap the health benefits. It is simple changes that make the biggest difference when it comes to overall health. Spice it up this holiday.