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For many people, holiday food is synonymous with weight gain. Although research has found that the average person gains only one to two pounds from late November to early January, there’s often a fear of gaining more.
This fear is certainly understandable since many holiday food dishes are higher in calories and fat. Plus, since they’re generally only available for these few months, it’s easy to overdo the number of servings you consume or go a bit overboard with your serving size in an effort to “get them while you can.”
One way to keep your weight in check during this time of year is with a few healthy holiday food swaps. Before we get into swaps to consider, let’s first talk a bit about why this approach is better than denying yourself completely.
If your goal is to maintain your weight during the holidays—or maybe even lose a pound or two—it can be tempting to declare your favorites off-limits. You tell yourself that you’ll have better control if you never taste the holiday food you love most. This idea is great in theory but rarely works out well in the real world.
The minute you tell yourself that you can’t enjoy a certain holiday meal or food, it starts an internal struggle. You begin to go back and forth between wanting the food and telling yourself that you can’t have it.
Though your willpower may be strong at first, the longer this battle rages, the weaker you become. Before you know it, you’ve consumed the food you were trying to avoid and then some. In an effort to eat fewer calories or less fat, you actually take in more.
Doing healthy holiday food swaps keeps you from depriving yourself to the point where you lose complete control. It also satisfies your cravings for your seasonal favorites without having to endure the guilt.
When going through the healthy food swap ideas below, think about which items you’d be willing to replace and which ones are worth the additional fat and calories. Why? The goal isn’t necessarily to make a swap for every one of your holiday favorites. Every diet has room for not-so-healthy food items here and there.
Additionally, food is about more than nutrition. It’s also about experiences and enjoying meals with family and friends. You don’t want to become so consumed with food choice that everything else goes out the window. This will suck all of the fun out of holiday eating.
The one exception is if you have a medical condition that may be affected by certain food choices. For example, people with diabetes need to be careful with added sugar, and those with high blood pressure benefit from watching their sodium intake. Even then, you may still be able to enjoy a few of your favorites, as long as you stay within certain parameters. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you plan your holiday menu to better account for your needs and condition.
Absent having a medically required eating plan, give yourself permission to eat a serving or two of your favorites without guilt. For food options that you may be a little more willing to modify to make them healthier, here are a few ways to do just that.
Most holiday meals are centered around one or two main dishes. What are a few swaps you can make to cut fat and calories while increasing nutrients?
Turkey for ham. If your main dish options are these two types of meat, turkey typically has fewer calories than ham. It also generally contains less fat while supplying more protein. The one area where turkey may lose out is in cholesterol. So, if you’re watching your cholesterol intake, the ham may be a better choice for you. Also keep in mind that ham is higher in sodium. So, this swap is extra important for people who are following a low-sodium diet due to heart or blood pressure issues.
Lean meats for casseroles. When you have a choice between lean meat and a casserole dish, choose the meat. Casseroles are often made with added butter and heavy cream, which increases their fat and calories. Plus, many contain more side ingredients than meat. When these side ingredients are made with white flour (like pasta), they can also impact your blood sugar while being devoid of major nutrients. Eating a slice of lean meat can help fill you up without exceeding your desired fat and calorie intake.
Grilled or baked foods for fried. One serving dish has fried chicken the other has baked. Go for the baked and you will lower your saturated fat intake. Alternatively, if you’re in charge of the main dish and prefer the crunch of fried, follow a recipe that uses the oven instead of frying in grease. You can achieve the same effect without adding calories and fat.
Once you’ve made it past the main dishes, it’s time to select your sides. What swaps can make your holiday plate healthier?
Mashed cauliflower for mashed potato. If you’re watching your carb intake, you may want to swap your potato for cauliflower. This will save you as many as 60 grams of carbs per serving. (The USDA shares that one cup of cauliflower contains just over 5 grams of carbs while one large russet potato provides 64 grams.)
Sweet potato for white potato. Another potato swap is to go with a sweet potato over a white potato. Sweet potato is high in vitamins A, C, and B6, while also providing potassium and fiber. They also don’t affect your blood sugar the way white potatoes do.
Greek yogurt for sour cream. You can even swap your potato topping. Not only is Greek yogurt lower in calories and fat, but it’s also packed with protein. Protein helps fill you up, keeping your belly satisfied for longer. Put a dollop on your potato side dish to get a bit of zing minus the guilt.
Maple syrup in your sweet potato casserole instead of marshmallows. If you can’t imagine a holiday without sweet potato casserole, make yours sweet by using maple syrup instead of marshmallows. Maple syrup is lower in calories while also being slightly lower in fat and carbs.
Brussels sprouts for green bean casserole. Green bean casserole is a common holiday staple. The problem is that it’s generally made with a cream-based soup, butter, and fried onions. A healthier option is to fry up some Brussels sprouts in a little bit of olive oil (a healthy fat) and sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste. This way, you still get a green vegetable on your plate without the added saturated fat.
Homemade cranberry sauce for canned cranberry sauce. Make your own cranberry sauce and you control how much sugar goes in. Plus, you can add other ingredients to boost this side dish’s nutrition even more. Options to consider include oranges, raspberries, walnuts, and cinnamon.
The holiday meal is over and you’re ready for dessert. Which food swaps will end your meal in a healthier way?
Pumpkin pie for pecan pie. Not only does this food swap save you calories, but pumpkin also provides beta carotene, vitamin E, and iron. These nutrients can help boost your immune system.
Baked apple with cinnamon for apple pie. Do you associate holidays with grandma’s homemade apple pie? Ask her to bake you an apple with a little cinnamon instead. This will satisfy your craving without adding the saturated fat and butter contained in the pie’s crust.
Fresh fruit for dried fruit. Many holiday tables are adorned with an assortment of dried fruit. If you want a sweet treat that is higher in nutrients without increasing your sugar intake, go for a piece of fresh fruit instead. The fresh fruit will also fill you up better, tiding you over until your next meal.
Dark chocolate for milk chocolate. Chocolate cravings are common, especially around the holidays. If you can’t seem to keep your hands out of the candy dish, select a piece of dark chocolate over other options. Dark chocolate is a good source of magnesium, copper, zinc, and phosphorus. The American Heart Association even indicates that it can lower your risk of heart disease.
Admittedly, making these healthy holiday swaps isn’t always easy, especially if you’re not the one doing the cooking. But if you are, look for a recipe that limits added sugar and ingredients made with white flour. Challenge yourself to do an ingredient swap whenever you can to make your holiday foods healthier without sacrificing taste.
As a fitness trainer, your clients may look to you for suggestions about healthy food swaps. Learn which recommendations to make with ISSA’s Nutritionist Certification. This course teaches you how to help clients make healthier food choices all year long.