We love the holidays, but we know they can be a nutritional minefield. Temptations lurk everywhere. Those extra calories add up to an average weight gain of about a pound during the festivities between Thanksgiving and New Year's, studies show. That may not sound like much, but if it becomes a yearly tradition, the years can pack on the pounds.
Don't let that curb your merriment, though. There are plenty of good-for-you foods lurking in between the calorie bombs. Here's our guide to good-for-you holiday dishes…and foods you'll want to avoid. By Katherine Brooking MS, RD
1. Best: Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse. An excellent source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, they're also a good source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, and potassium. Best of all, they taste like a dessert! The "sweet" in these potatoes comes from an enzyme that converts most of the tuber's starches to sugars as it matures. This sweetness intensifies during storage and as the potato is cooked. This is one holiday favorite worth adding to your meals year round.
Before you toast the holiday season with a glass of eggnog, consider this: an 8-oz serving can easily exceed 250 calories and 5g saturated fat. (Wouldn't you rather have dessert?) Choose a 4 oz. glass of wine instead, or if you're hosting, try making our lightened version shown here―it has just 152 calories and 2.7g saturated fat. If you're the designated driver, or just abstaining, here's a non-alcoholic drink you could sip all night long: seltzer water mixed with a bit of 100 percent fruit juice.
2. Best: Cranberries
Legend holds that Native Americans shared cranberries with the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. There is evidence that they were well aware of some of the medicinal benefits of these tart, antioxidant-rich berries.
They were on to something. Cranberries are low in calories and rich in fiber, and potassium, which makes them a perfect part of a healthy diet. In addition, these pretty little berries contain unique compounds with antibacterial properties that may help prevent urinary tract infections.
Dips are one of the more insidious choices on the appetizer table. You don't know what's in them (that healthy-sounding spinach dip may be heavy with cheese), and it's easy to just keep dipping away. The calories, saturated fat, and sodium lurking in creamy dips (and the crackers and chips dipped in them) adds up. Choose hummus or salsa instead, and use fresh veggies as dippers. Better yet, make our all-time favorite appetizer, the Spinach-and-Artichoke Dip below.
3. Best: Cocoa
Chocoholics, rejoice! This sweet treat (in moderation, of course) is connected with health benefits. Clinical studies show that eating small amounts of chocolate (one piece a day―about 30 calories' worth) lowered systolic blood pressure by 2.9 mm/Hg. That in turn may lower your risk of stroke or coronary heart disease.
Choose dark chocolate containing at least 70 percent cocoa solids. Those contain higher levels of the antioxidant flavonoids responsible for its heath benefits. Several long-term studies have found that this type of dark chocolate may help lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase HDL (good cholesterol). Find our top choices of baking chocolate from our blind taste test.
Worst: Creamy Soups
Some commercially prepared and homemade creamy soups can contain an entrée's worth of calories. When whole milk or heavy cream is used as the base, they also add artery-clogging saturated fat. For a much healthier alternative, stick with broth-based soups and consommés. If you prefer thicker soups, choose vegetable purées made with water or skim milk as a base - their smooth, creamy texture feels indulgent, and the puréed veggies provide a nutritional bonus.
4. Best: Turkey
Eating any high-quality protein helps to trigger satiety so you're less likely to over-indulge on less healthful foods. And turkey―dark meat or white―is one of the lowest-calorie protein sources you can eat. A three-ounce serving of skinless turkey breast has about 120 calories and one gram of fat. Tip: Trim off the skin before eating - that's where most of the fat and calories lurk.
Worst: Mashed Potatoes
This holiday favorite can go either way. In their natural state, potatoes offer plenty of nutrients (Vitamin C and potassium, for starters) in relatively few calories. But beware of potatoes prepared with too much butter, whole milk, heavy cream, or other fatty ingredients. The very ingredients that make them creamy can wreck a perfectly nutritious choice by adding hundreds of calories and many grams of saturated fat. Our lightened version boosts flavor with a small amount of a buttery, creamy cheese.
5. Best: Green Beans
Green beans are one of the healthiest foods you can eat during the holidays (or any time of year). They're a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, manganese, dietary fiber, potassium, folate, and iron. The key is how you prepare them. Drowning them in butter or calorie-laden cream sauce is the best way to negate those benefits with excess fat and calories. Best bet? Boil or steam them, and use healthful seasonings (and even butter, in moderation).
Worst: Pecan Pie
A typical slice of this nutty dessert can cost you over 500 calories. Top it with a scoop (1/2 cup) of vanilla ice cream, and you may be pushing 650 calories and 8g saturated fat. We're not saying "never" to pecan pie, but keep this for a special occasion and use moderation as your guide. Choose pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie for a lower-calorie option. Or try our lightened version, which has just 311 calories and the benefits of a whole grain: oats.