'Tis the season of holiday feasts and sugary treats!
Yes, it's that time of year in which we tend to indulge our sweet tooth and derail our usual healthy eating habits. But just because you're indulging doesn't mean you have to fill up on processed, unhealthy desserts. There are several easy swaps that you can do to make those decadent holiday treats into healthier eats.
Despite popular belief, the average person only gains about 1-2 pounds during the holiday season, according to Ashley Rader, MS, RD, LDN, an outpatient clinical dietitian at East Jefferson General Hospital. "But if you keep putting on 1-2 pounds of weight each year, that can add up to almost 10 pounds in five years. The holidays may not be the best time to start a weight loss plan, but, rather, it may be a good time to try to maintain weight and begin practicing mindful eating and portion control."
For Rader, the key to preventing weight gain during the holidays is moderation. "Allow yourself to enjoy the holiday treats in moderation," Rader said. "Many of us try so hard to restrict ourselves through the holiday season to avoid weight gain but sometimes this can have the opposite effect."
A simple solution is to plan ahead. Do not show up at the holiday party or family feast starving. Rader emphasized, "Some people avoid the holiday foods throughout the season to "save up" for the actual holiday. This method can cause individuals to overindulge because they are only allowing themselves this one day to have the treats they've been putting off."
Although the holiday season may be challenging even for the most disciplined weight-watcher, Rader offered a few options for healthy dessert alternatives. "There are a variety of different swaps that can be used to help lighten up or make a dessert more nutrient dense," Rader said. "Some examples are using wheat flour in place of white flour, using applesauce in place of oil, and using Greek yogurt in place of sour cream."
For healthy swaps, one can start by looking at the recipe, added Jen Smiley, founder of Wake Up and Read the Labels and The Clean Eating Academy—an innovative and sustainable program giving instruction on how to eat clean. As a busy mother of two boys and a master food coach, Smiley suggested that if the recipe calls for cane or brown sugar, then "grab coconut sugar because it is not refined or going to spike your blood sugar quite like the recipe calls for." She also pointed out the importance of reading the labels when recipes ask for chocolate. "Most chocolate has dairy, plus soy lecithin, which acts like wheat in your body, and preservatives that can cause us to bloat and ache," Smiley said. "Instead, look at Enjoy Life chocolate chips, which are going to have no soy, dairy, or preservatives. It does have cane sugar, but you are eliminating the inflammatory ingredients otherwise in the dish so you're gonna feel good."
Making smart swaps for favorite desserts like pecan pie is possible, according to Smiley.
"Absolutely," Smiley agreed. "One of my favorites is pecan pie made from almond flour crust, sweetened with real maple syrup, not the fake stuff, tossed in grass-fed butter because that is actually anti-inflammatory and good nutrition for your body. Plus, we use non-dairy milk with just two ingredients: water and almonds."
Of course, Smiley affirmed that you can enjoy the holidays with a cup of healthy eggnog.
Her recommendation was to follow the traditional recipe and use these swaps:
● Coconut milk—canned without the guar gum
● Almond milk—containing only almonds and milk
● Maple syrup—none of that brown rice syrup or high fructose syrup
● Cinnamon stick
● Dark rum
If you do not have the time to make the eggnog drink from scratch, Rader pointed out that you can find a reduced fat eggnog in the grocery that is lower in saturated fat and calories. She explained that many companies that sell almond milk also make almond milk eggnog. "The almond milk eggnog is much lower in calories and fat, but it still contains a decent amount of added sugar so, again, everything in moderation," Rader said.
Rader reminded those who follow a vegan or Paleo diet should watch for vegan products that can be high in sugar, fat, and calolries, as well as Paleo items that can be high in calories and fat. "Just because something is labeled vegan or Paleo doesn't mean it is always a healthier, low-calorie option," Rader said. "Many of the fats used may be healthier fats such as nuts, nut butters, or oils, but, in excess, this can add up in calories and, ultimately, affect weight too."
So is it possible to enjoy delicious holiday treats and still maintain healthy eating habits? Absolutely. If you want to boost the nutrition in sweet desserts like cookies, Rader suggested adding such items as nuts, oats, and fruit. "This will fill the cookie with healthy fats, as well as fiber, and may leave you feeling more satisfied after eating your cookie," Rader said.
Another healthy cookie alternative that Smiley recommended was Cappello's frozen chocolate cookies, which are found in the freezer section. "Made with almond flour instead of traditional cookies—gluten free oats," Smiley said. "I also love Simple Mills pre-made cookies in a box."
As for such holiday classics like pumpkin pie, apple pie, and cheesecake, Rader advised substituting healthy ingredients for a more nutritious dessert. "Pumpkin pie is generally on the light side," Rader said. "You can also try making an apple crumble for a lighter take on traditional apple pie. And make cheesecake lighter by making a cheesecake mixture with low-fat cream cheese or Greek yogurt."