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Not-so-Healthy Holiday Foods

Feb 26 2021
7 min read
close-up of slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top

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 left. Enjoy this time of year, but keep an eye out for these five holiday’s 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,contain a compound that can help prevent tooth decay, and are rich in antioxidants that may help thwart tumors.

However, the canned cranberry sauce that often makes an appearance at holiday dinners is loaded with sugar – as much as 21 grams (and 110 calories) for just a quarter cup. And sauces that aren’t made from whole cranberries don’t pack as much nutrition as the ones 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 and 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 nutritional benefits and are high in saturated fat and sodium.


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 you don’t want to gobble down too many. Nuts are high in calories and­ a few handfuls add up fast. Salted and smoked varieties also 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.

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 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 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 call for 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, like pumpkin bread or cookies.

But if you’re faced with the temptation of Aunt Mildred’s famous pumpkin pie and you just can’t resist, go ahead and have a slim slice – minus the a la mode, perhaps. You might be surprised by how just a forkful or two of something so rich will satisfy you.


Vegetable side dishes are go-to options 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.

That said, while any vegetable dish will fill you up faster and help 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.

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 the amount you are served to prevent yourself from overdoing it.

Five ounces of wine is one serving, which will fill approximately half of a wine glass. Mixed drinks should contain no more than a shot of alcohol, and one can of beer is one serving. After you finish your drink, consider switching to club soda or “mocktails,” non-alcoholic beverages inspired by regular cocktails.