Nutritionists describe how to avoid unhealthy eating habits this holiday season

As the holidays approach, people are more than worried about sticking to their healthy diets. Christmas cookies and candies are everywhere, and there is always the temptation to try the newest holiday-themed lattes.

Whether the concern is weight management, dietary restrictions or just maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it does not mean you can't enjoy a festive, delicious holiday meal. If you want to have a holiday cookie, you certainly could in moderation, but there is no need to break your healthy habits just because of the season.

Dessert seems to be the biggest fear of anyone trying to avoid added sugars and fats during the holiday season, but the delicious after-meal treat does not have to be avoided completely. There are healthy alternatives that are just as satisfying.

"Nuts can be served as part of a dessert," said Leah Holbrook, associate director of the Stony Brook University Medicine Graduate Nutrition Program. "Dark chocolate is also generally a good choice when you're replacing a less helpful dessert. Dark chocolate covered nuts is an option or fruits that has been dipped in chocolate which is widely available now."

Comfort Food
Comfort Food

Memories of holiday meals gone by may cause cravings of heavy, carbohydrate-laden foods this time of year. (iStock/Thinkstock/bhofack2)

The addition of a low-fat whipped topping, said Holbrook, can also sweeten a simple dish like a bowl of berries, making the dessert option more of a treat.

All of these options and ingredients are typically available in local grocery stores and markets, making shopping and preparation easy.

For those who enjoy baking, following recipes that replace the ingredients high in sugar or unwanted fats can make the switch from traditional fatty desserts much smoother, while still maintaining all the fun in holiday baking.

"If you are going to bake your desserts, bake with recipes that call for oil instead of solid fats like butter or shortening," said Holbrook. "You can also swap out some of the oil for applesauce."

Prunes can also be a great substitution in baking recipes, according to registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade. The fruit can be pureed and can replace added sugar, because the natural sweetness and moisture still maintains the integrity of cookie texture and taste.

"The benefit of doing that is now you've cut the added sugar, you've reduced the calorie and carbohydrate of the recipe, and because prune have three grams of fiber per serving," said Palinski-Wade. "When you get more fiber, it does fill you up longer which helps to curve cravings."

In-season vegetables and fruits are a great way to incorporate the tastes of the season into side dishes.

Esacrole, swiss chard, and kale are in-season heavy greens that can be utilized in salads but also in soup recipes or cooked into a side dish. Other in-season vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, lentils and other beans are also great seasonal side dish options and are abundant in most grocery stores and markets.

Of course, it is not a holiday without cranberry sauce. However, the grams of sugar may concern someone who's conscious of what they eat.

5 tips to reduce food waste during Thanksgiving and other holiday meals
How the holidays may worsen conditions for those with seasonal affective disorder
Experts share tips on ideal weather conditions for growing your perfect Christmas tree
Why you need Vitamin D this time of year and 10 foods that are full of it

"We always think of cranberry sauce around [holidays] and it is a really beautiful color," said Palinski-Wade. "If you just puree the cranberries and, even if you want to give it more texture you could do even a quarter of what the recipe calls for in added sugar, still get that same, really nice tangy taste in a much healthier way."

It is important to remain aware of how each side dish is being prepared, because even vegetable dishes can be smothered with extra calories and fats.

Many times, the most fat and caloric intake comes from side dishes made with a heavy hand of butter, cream, salt, and carbohydrates. Substituting olive oil or canola oil for butter or Greek yogurt for heavy creams, while measuring the other ingredients added, can make a substantial difference in the dishes nutritional value, while containing the same great tastes.

It is also important to think before you drink. From alcoholic beverages to flavored hot cocoas, there are added sugars in all of them. If you choose to enjoy them, Holbrook suggests pacing in between servings with a flavored seltzer or water. However, there are healthy drink options that are just as enjoyable.

"Add a cranberry or pomegranate juice to a seltzer to make a holiday spritzer," said Holbrook. "You can make it a little more fancy by adding whole cranberries to your glass or pitcher if your serving or entertaining."

Another great recipe includes flavored herbal teas that are free of added sugars, natural, and can be enjoyed hot or iced.

The flavors vary from cinnamon to peppermint, and more, and all can be a pleasant reminder of your favorite holiday scents.


Frozen hands holding a mug

"Make a pitcher of herbal iced tea and have that in the fridge to sip on while you're cooking," said Holbrook.

While remaining health conscious is important, Palinski-Wade believes that people can be lenient while being dedicated to their healthy habit, even eating some of their delicious favorites, without letting themselves go overboard.

In an effort to portion control, Palinski-Wade typically suggests that people seeking to be mindful of their food intake rate the food being offered at their holiday gathering by identifying the foods that are, in your opinion, nines and 10s out of 10.

By focusing on the foods you do like and filling your plate with those options, you avoid eating more food and taking in more calories of items you don't enjoy.

Most important, Palinski-Wade wants you to know that you won't gain 10 pounds from one meal.

"It is a holiday, it's a one-day event," said Palinski-Wade. "You don't want to be so restrictive that you are not enjoying it. Food is part of the event and the social occasion, so make sure you are not feeling guilty about what you're consuming, but just balance it with healthy behaviors."

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit

AccuWeather ready logo
AccuWeather ready logo