Healthy Holiday Substitutes

holiday foodsThe holiday season has arrived and as always, it’s a time filled with notoriously unhealthy, heavy foods at every holiday gathering and on every dinner plate from now until the New Year. With all this added “festive food” it’s no wonder that the average weight gain during the holiday season is between 7-10 pounds. Luckily there are plenty of healthy alternatives to your favorite holiday fare. With a few simple tweaks, you can make traditional dishes healthier and spare yourself the stress that comes with holiday eating.

Triple Threat

The first place to begin is to consider a few basic substitutions that you can make for staples found in many dishes. The three main ingredients that get us in trouble with holiday dishes are sugar, salt and white flour.

Pour Some Sugar on Me

Sugar increases inflammation in the body and in large quantities, causes our bodies to become more insulin resistant which eventually leads to weight gain and other health issues. A hallmark of sweets and desserts around the holidays, the average annual sugar intake for Americans is nearly one hundred and fifty-six pounds! That's how much added sugar Americans consume each year on a per capita basis, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Imagine it: 31 five-pound bags for each of us.

Several sugar substitutes are available that can help decrease the sugar content of your holiday foods while still providing you with some tasty treats. Stevia is a natural plant extract that can be used in cooking and baking and does not have the same effect on blood sugar levels in the body. Agave nectar is another popular sugar substitute. Agave nectar's glycemic index and glycemic load are comparable to fructose, which in turn has a much lower glycemic index and glycemic load than table sugar (sucrose).1

Both Stevia and Agave nectar taste slightly sweeter than table sugar, so less of each ingredient is often needed in recipes than traditional sugar.

Grain of Salt

Salt is another weight gain culprit that in excess causes fluid retention and can raise blood pressure. Salt is found in abundance in cured meats and savory foods during the holiday season. The best way to maintain flavor in dishes without the added salt is to rely on a wide array of herbs and spices that not only provide excellent flavor, but can add health benefits at the same time.

Fragrant herbs such as thyme, basil, oregano, and rosemary add exceptional flavor without the deleterious effects of salt. Spices such as tumeric, ginger, cayenne, and cumin all add zest and flavor to your foods as well. Ginger has long been noted for its benefit to digestive health, and a comprehensive review of studies published in the October 2007 issue of Alternative & Complementary Therapies, showed tumeric to have potential protective effects against arthritis, Alzheimer’s and cancer. You can find these herbs and spices in the spice isle of your local grocer, alongside salt-free blends such as the Mrs. Dash series.

Flour Power

White flour consumption jumps during the holidays with breads, cakes, cookies, and pies as the centerpieces to holiday meals. In moderation around the holidays these treats may be alright, but in excess you get the effects of elevated blood sugar levels that flour creates. As with sugar, flour consumption can be problematic for those treating or trying to avoid diabetes, metabolic syndrome and weight gain.

For the sake of baking, you can opt to use substitutes such as oat, rice or nut flour in your desserts (especially good if you are gluten-free or celiac). While these flours still result in a rise in blood sugar levels when consumed, when used in combination with protein and healthy fats, the effect is lessened. Incorporating healthy fats also gives you options to “dress up” your favorite treats with some delicious additions. Try adding walnuts, almonds, and macadamia nuts to your recipes for a boost of healthy fat and protein.

Consider these alternatives for your holiday fare and take the guilt out of favorite foods.


1 David Mendosa. Revised International Table of Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) Values—2002. Retrieved 2 November 2010.

2 James A. Duke, Phd., October, 2007. Alternative & Complementary Therapies.

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