The holiday season comes at a trying time for the health-conscious. You've plowed through tedious work deadlines and are in the midst of planning presents and festivities—by the time holiday parties arrive, you're ready to shrug off your usually responsible self and indulge a little.
If you're tempted to extend that cheat-day mentality to the entire holiday period, nutrition experts Jennie Miremadi and Ilana Muhlstein say you're setting yourself up for an unhealthy New Year. According to Mulhslein, sipping on one particular holiday drink equates to days’ worth of sugar, while a deep fried appetizer has the calorie equivalent to a meal, rather than a snack.
Here, they reveal the holiday foods and drinks they would never eat at a party—and what to reach for instead. Navigate the holiday spread without a pang of next-day (or next-year) guilt with their expert tips.
Dip might seem like a fairly healthy option amid a buffet of sweet treats and salty delights, but nutritionist Miremadi, MS, CNS, says that's not always the case. "Crab dip is typically loaded with cream cheese and mayonnaise and contains very little nutrients," she tells MyDomaine. Instead, she recommends reaching for fresh seafood like boiled crab legs with lemon. "This yummy food is still decadent without all the cream cheese and mayo. It's also protein-packed, which can help satiate you."
Powdered Hot Cocoa
Cocoa is rich in flavonoids, and some studies suggest it could help lower blood pressure, but not all hot cocoa drinks are created equal. "Most powdered hot cocoa is highly processed and has no nutritional benefits," says Miremadi. "It is also filled with sugar and corn syrup, which will spike your blood sugar, and contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are harmful to your health."
That doesn't mean you have to resist a steaming mug of cocoa—just be selective about the type you buy. "Try a real, whole foods–based hot cocoa made with coconut milk or homemade nut milk, raw cacao, raw cacao nibs, and stevia," she says. "Raw cacao is an excellent source of magnesium and antioxidants and a great source of fiber and protein."
It's no secret that pie isn't exactly healthy, but Muhlstein, RD, nutritionist for Explore Cuisine, says she avoids one particular element: the crust. "The main ingredients in pie dough are bleached flour and lard filled with trans fats. Trans fats are the worst fats for your heart," she explains.
That doesn't mean you can't enjoy a slice, though. "Everyone knows that pumpkin, berry, and pecan pies are all about the filling. The pie crust is just the bowl that holds the flavor," she says. "If you love the kind of pie, use a fork and scoop out some bites of the good stuff."
Both Mahlstein and Miremadi agree—holiday cookies should be avoided at all costs. "Your favorite frosted holiday sugar cookies contain refined white flour and sugar, which will spike your blood sugar," explains Miremadi. Instead, she recommends treating yourself with homemade goods made with natural sweeteners stevia or xylitol to avoid a blood sugar spike.
When you realize what ingredients go into your favorite cookie, you'll likely think twice about snacking on them, says Muhlstein. "I'll never touch shortbread cookies after seeing how they're made. Shortbread cookies are like eating plain butter, sugar, and bleached flour," she says. Not so appetizing. "Make a cookie flavored tea with a splash of almond milk and stevia instead."
If you only pay attention to the platters on your holiday table, you're making a big mistake. As Muhlstein explains, holiday drinks can carry just as many calories as a sugar-laden doughnut. "Eggnog is like sipping a doughnut. It's half your day's worth of cholesterol and a day's worth of sugar in one cup," she says.
Instead, try this recipe hack: "I add butterscotch stevia drops to plain kefir, and it tastes like a milkshake!" says Muhlstein. "Try adding a drop of rum extract for a good-for-you eggnog kefir mocktail."
Appetizers might be small in size, but don't let that deceive you. Mindlessly snacking on fried food is likely to surpass your daily intake of saturated fat and sodium—and leave you wanting for more. "Fried latkas are dangerous," says Muhlstein. "I've heard clients eat eight latkes like they were an appetizer. For 200 calories each, that's a day's worth of calories and enough fat for two days! And that's without the sour cream."
If you're hosting, she recommends changing the way you cook food to ensure guests can indulge a little, without a pang of next-day guilt: "Bake your latkas with oil spray for a better take on the Hannukah classic."
"Breaded, fried mozzarella sticks might taste good, but they aren't doing any favors for your health," says Miremadi. The issue is the way that they're cooked. "Frying food promotes the production of free radicals, which can lead to cell damage. Additionally, bread contains gluten, and mozzarella is a dairy food—both dairy and gluten are common sources of inflammation for many people."
Her top tip? Switch your appetizer choice for another filling food. "Try baked chicken kabobs. You'll avoid the harmful effects of eating fried foods," she says. "And because kabobs are dairy- and gluten-free and packed with protein, they can help fill you up without making you feel unwell!"
"Cheese fondue with French bread is not only lacking in nutrients; it contains gluten and dairy, which can be inflammatory for many people," says Miremadi. She recommends passing it up for a healthy dip like hummus (not crab dip!) and vegetable crudités. "Hummus dip is not only dairy and gluten-free; it's delicious and nutritious!" she says. "In fact, hummus is a great source of protein, fiber, and healthy fat. And if you eat it with vegetables, you can get an additional nutrient boost."