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Healthy Alternatives to Your Favorite Holiday Foods

6 min read

By Jeff Hayward

The holidays – it’s sometimes seen as a green light to indulge in all kinds of foods that are sometimes not the healthiest. You might not think it’s a big deal to ditch the rulebook for a couple of weeks (or longer), but according to, the average person in the U.S. can pack on up to 2-pounds from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

While gaining a pound or two is definitely not the end of the world, there are other health considerations with popular holiday foods such as saturated fats from heavy creams and butter that can raise cholesterol levels that can impact heart health. With that being said, you don’t have to give up indulging this season – you can just make some healthier substitutes while still getting tons of flavor. Here are some suggestions…

Sour Cream vs. Greek Yogurt

Sour cream is an ingredient in many holiday dishes to provide that rich, comforting flavor that helps us forget how cold it is outside. It can be part of a sauce, or can be added to mashed potatoes – and we don’t need to tell you how delicious that makes it.

However, while sour cream packs 193-calories per 100-grams according to the USDA, you can lower that number and still get the rich texture by subbing it for plain Greek yogurt. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference once it’s included with the other ingredients and seasoning, and this yogurt has only 59-calories per 100-grams according to the same source.

Candied Yams vs. Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Candied yams, which are sweet potatoes that have essentially been candied with brown sugar (and butter) as the name suggests, are undoubtedly delicious. However, according to EveryDay Health, these candied potatoes serve up 215-calories for every 1/2-cup serving.

The source explains that roasted sweet potatoes brushed with “a little heart-healthy canola or olive oil” is only 100-calories per 3/4-cup, and you’ll also get the added benefit of monounsaturated fat from the oil while also getting the vitamins and nutrients associated with sweet potatoes. It notes roasting the potatoes brings out more of the natural sweetness compared to boiling.

Mashed Potatoes vs. Mashed Cauliflower

We know what you’re thinking already – “give up mashed potatoes?” We know it’s an important staple of the holiday diet, but we’re also here to tell you that white potatoes are full of carbs and starch – and there’s a way to substitute it for something healthier without giving up flavor.

The answer is mashed cauliflower! You can make them with close to the same consistency as mashed potatoes, while cutting down on calories per 1/2-cup (67.1 vs. 14.3 according to The same source explains the cauliflower version beats white potatoes per the same serving size in terms of carbohydrates (15.6-grams vs. 2.5-grams), while almost matching potatoes for protein content.

Hot Chocolate vs. Cinnamon Tea

Admittedly there are few things more warming that also scream “holidays!” like a nice mug of hot chocolate with some whipped cream added. But you’re probably not thinking about how much sugar is involved in a cup, which can be fairly high if you make it from a packet (or get a fancier version from a café, which can contain 62-grams of sugar according to

Instead, make a nice mug of cinnamon tea instead when you feel the craving coming on. It will still warm you from the inside out with the mild spiciness, but small studies suggest cinnamon may have a lowering effect on blood glucose (and even cholesterol), according to WebMD.

Fruitcake vs. Gingerbread

Apparently, many people still eat fruit cake – a tradition that reportedly dates back to the Middle Ages. But it’s probably no big secret that the dense, spirit-soaked fruitcake full of dried fruit is high in calories – about 324-of them per 100-grams, according to the USDA.

Instead, you should reach for gingerbread loaf during the holidays, suggests Prevention. This version comes packed with many of the same things that make fruitcake appetizing such as cinnamon and nutmeg, but with “much less sugar,” it adds. If you’re keen to bake during the holidays, the site also provides a pumpkin gingerbread loaf recipe.

Traditional Pasta vs. Zucchini Noodles

Pasta is always popular, as it’s delicious, filling, and relatively inexpensive (unless you’re ordering it from a fine Italian restaurant). However, pasta is a popular way to start off holiday meals, and heavy sauces and creams are often added to it for additional texture and flavor. suggests instead of using regular pasta noodles, you can use “spiralized zucchini” also known as “zoodles” (not to be confused with the popular canned pasta for kids). The source says this version delivers the same tomato and garlic zest, while also cutting out “empty carbs” (25-grams per 100-gram serving in regular pasta vs. 3.1-grams per 100-grams in zucchini) and boosting fiber.

Regular Gravy vs. Vegan Mushroom Gravy

It’s easy to get carried away with dousing your plate with (admittedly delicious) traditional gravy, which can contain meat, flour, stock, butter, and a host of other ingredients. It may not seem like you’re doing any harm by loading on the gravy, but notes it has a “good amount of fat and sodium.”

While these things can be unfriendly to your heart, there’s a vegan alternative you can drizzle over your meal, says the source. The recipe for this alternative gravy contains mushrooms, red wine and soy sauce to boost the “umami” flavor people associate with a good gravy. “It’ll also satisfy any vegetarian or vegan guests you have, which is a plus,” adds the source.

Eggnog vs. Champagne

This one was a bit surprising to us, because the source suggests swapping a non-alcoholic beverage popular during the holidays with one that does contain alcohol. But justifies the swap by noting a cup of alcohol-free eggnog has about 350-calories and 19-grams of fat, not to mention 21-grams of sugar.

It notes you should choose champagne instead because it has much less of those things, and the bubbly nature of the drink will help slow you down to sips. It does warn that the carbonation “can make you bloat a bit,” and there are also other considerations when it comes to alcoholic beverages to keep in mind.

Dark Turkey Meat vs. White Turkey Meat

So maybe you don’t want to lose the meat from your holiday dinner, and that’s okay. But there are ways you can swap out holiday favorites like turkey without losing the… turkey, namely by serving white meat instead of dark, says EveryDay Health.

The source says the dark meat contains roughly 2-times more fat than white turkey breast, while also containing about 40-percent more calories. For a better comparison, it notes a 3.5-ounce portion of dark meat (skin on) has about 230-calories, compared to 160-calories for the same amount of white meat (which also has less saturated fat according to the source).

Pecan Pie vs. Pumpkin Pie

Let’s not pretend there aren’t many desserts in your near future. With that in mind, what you end your meal with can make a big difference in the overall number of calories and the other stuff you may not want to be consuming in great amounts. pits these pies against one another by listing pros and cons of each. It notes a downfall of pecan pie is that it can contain about 550-calories (although pumpkin pie can hit about 500-calories when you pile on whipped cream or ice cream, it adds). But pumpkin pie has the benefit of helping you reach your 2-cups of orange vegetables per week, while also being rich in vitamin A and lutein, it adds.


Julie Ching is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Los Angeles. She decided to become a Dietitian after traveling through Europe, South America, and Asia and discovered a passion for food. She now works with people of all ages and varying disease states to improve their health. She is passionate about teaching people about nutrition so they can live their best life while still considering their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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