Not-So-Healthy Holiday Foods

Written by 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N.
Updated on: 
March 11, 2014

Choosing healthy foods may not be top of mind during the holidays—for many of us, holiday eating is about joy, love and any family tradition that involves marshmallows—but there is merit to sticking with your regular healthy eating plan during the season of indulgence: It can help you avoid holiday weight gain and make it easier to stick with your commitment to good health after the house guests have come and gone. Enjoy this time of year, but keep an eye out for these five holiday favorites that seem healthier than they are.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries are nutrient powerhouses: They have antibacterial properties that can help prevent urinary tract infections and stomach ulcers, they contain a compound that can help prevent tooth decay and they're rich in antioxidants that may help thwart tumors. The canned cranberry sauce that often makes an appearance at many holiday dinners, however, is loaded with sugar—as much as 21 grams (and 110 calories) for just a quarter cup. And those sauces that aren’t made from whole cranberries don’t pack as much nutrition as those that are.

Smart Holiday Eating Strategy: If you’re the chef, serve up a more natural cranberry topper that lets the fruit’s tartness sing. Simmer whole cranberries in pineapple juice with orange zest until tender, and then add a little no-sugar applesauce to complete your sauce. When eating elsewhere for the holidays, go easy on servings of sugary cranberry sauce, if that’s what’s offered (limit yourself to a spoonful or two). Though high in sugar and calories, cranberry sauce may be a better, no-fat alternative to rich gravies and cream sauces that lack in such nutritional benefits and are high in saturated fat and sodium.

Photo Credit: Comstock/Thinkstock

Nuts

Make no mistake: If you’re perusing the holiday snack table, nuts are a great option. While they are often in the spotlight for their monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help lower bad cholesterol, most types of nuts are also full of fiber and vitamin E. In addition, they contain plant sterols, substances that can help eliminate cholesterol that’s circulating in your body. But gobbling down nuts can certainly be a case of too much of a good thing. Nuts are high in calories—a few handfuls add up fast. And, salted and smoked nuts pack a hefty dose of sodium.

Smart Holiday Eating Strategy: Enjoy your favorite nuts—just keep your serving to an ounce or two (about what fits in your cupped palm). Fill the rest of your hors d’oeuvre plate with crudité—the fiber and crunch of raw veggies will keep your mouth busy, front-load your meal with lots of vitamins and minerals and quickly get you on the road to feeling full. 

Photo Credit: Comstock/Thinkstock

Pumpkin Pie

This holiday food favorite likely graces more tables during the season than any other dessert. We love any dish that makes produce the star of the show, and the pumpkin is surely worthy of the attention: It’s loaded with vision-boosting beta carotene, blood-pressure lowering potassium and other nutrients. While this sweet treat may be better for you than triple-chocolate lava cake, it’s still a treat. And though it is fruit-based, popular recipes tend to also be rich in cream and sugar. Some don’t even use fresh pumpkin, which is a missed opportunity to use local, seasonal produce that’s at its nutritional peak.

Smart Holiday Eating Strategy: Volunteer to bring a healthier version of the dessert to your family gathering. Look for recipes that use honey instead of sugar, or that use tofu to replace the eggs and dairy in the classic version. Or, consider another option that has the same pumpkin flavor and classic spices without the added cream; try pumpkin bread or cookies, for example. But if you’re faced with the temptation of Aunt Mildred’s famous pumpkin pie and you feel you just can’t resist, go ahead and have a slim slice—minus the a la mode, perhaps. You’ll be surprised by how just a forkful or two of something so rich will satisfy you.

Canyon Ranch Recipes
Pumpkin Crunch
Pumpkin Nut Bread

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock


 

Vegetables

Vegetable side dishes are usually go-tos for anyone looking to keep holiday eating as healthy as it can be. And given that vegetables are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, they’re almost always smart choices. While any vegetable dish will fill you up faster, helping you feel satisfied with less food, holiday versions can often be laden with ingredients—butter, brown sugar, fried onions, cream soup—that take some of the shine off their healthy holiday food luster.

Smart Holiday Eating Strategy: Keep servings of these souped-up vegetable dishes to about the size of a golf ball. You may consider mixing your portion in with steamed, sautéed, roasted or raw vegetables to add bulk while still getting the flavor you’re after. (If your host doesn’t have “naked” veggies on the menu, ask if some can be set aside for you during meal prep before other ingredients are mixed in.)

Canyon Ranch Recipes
Broccolini with Garlic and Oil
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Roasted Tomatoes with Radicchio
Roasted Vegetables
Sautéed Spinach with Garlic and Oil

Photo Credit: Hemera/Thinkstock


 

Red Wine

The health benefits of red wine are well known: It contains the polyphenol resveratrol and other antioxidants that may help protect your heart by encouraging healthy blood vessels and reducing LDL cholesterol. Reaching for red wine over, say, a beer or cocktail may indeed be a wise decision for these reasons, but after a few generous refills, your best intentions may be defeated. The health risks associated with regular overindulging—along with the added calories and reduced inhibitions that come with doing so—far outweigh the heart health benefits you get from raising a glass of red.

Smart Holiday Eating Strategy: Raise one glass—of red wine, or whatever alcoholic beverage you desire—and toast the season. Since socializing can make it easy to sip without paying much mind, do your best to keep an eye on how much you are served to prevent yourself from overdoing it. Five ounces of wine is one serving size, and that’s enough to fill no more than half of some wine glasses (mixed drinks should contain no more than a shot of alcohol; one can of beer is one serving). Then, consider switching to club soda or “mocktails,” non-alcoholic drinks inspired by regular cocktails.

Photo Credit: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Thinkstock



 

Reference(s) 
Mayo Clinic