The Healthy Holiday Food Guide: Ingredient Substitutions

Who says the holidays have to be unhealthy?

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When we celebrate, we like to do it with food, gathering with friends and family to share a special meal around a table -- perhaps with a champagne toast.

But the holiday season tends to be packed with events, and indulging in high-fat goodies and sugary delicacies every week will take a toll on your health.

You don't have to give anything up (except maybe eggnog). Just learn some healthy substitutes for the more common unhealthy ingredients in recipes.

Whether you're the one behind the stove or at the dining table, there are ways to create a lighter version of your holiday favorites. Here are 10 of them.


10: Olive Oil for Butter

Your family may not get festive with Paula Deen's infamous Fried Butter Balls, but there's no way butter's golden goodness doesn't make it into your meal, unless you all went vegan. Rolls with herb butter, mashed potatoes drowning in the stuff -- and that's not counting butter cookies, butter tarts and all the other goodies baked with it. Butter is delicious, but it's high in cholesterol and especially saturated fats.

A simple switch: olive oil, which has good fats and no cholesterol. Some great extra-virgin goes perfectly with bread, while light olive oil works well in baking (although you'll need to check a cookbook for the correct proportions when you substitute).


    9: Herbs, Spices and Citrus for Salt

    Cheeseburger in Paradise

    The recommended daily limit of sodium for someone in good health is 2,300 mg. A single cheeseburger can take up about 75 percent of that [source: Song].

    How could a sprinkle of fleur de sel on chocolate ice cream for a holiday treat be so bad for you? A little salt is actually OK. The problem is that you're already consuming way more salt than you realize in the breads, cured meats, cheeses, soups and all sort of snacks you're eating.

    Cutting back on salt cuts down on your risk of heart attack and stroke [source: Cappuccio and Capewell]. But less salt doesn't mean no flavor -- just add a little more imagination to the kitchen. There's a good reason lemon juice and garlic are used so often in recipes. And take some time to browse the spices and herbs rack.


    8: Soda Water for Juice or Tonic

    Some Like It Hot recommends a hot toddy in place of the hot chocolate with Bailey's, and sparkling rose instead of the Kir Royale. The eggnog is past fixing.

    Holiday party? Break out the booze! Some of us like to indulge in a little liquid courage to help with awkward family and co-worker conversation, or just to celebrate the season.

    A gin and tonic can be up to 160 calories, eggnog comes in at 250, a Kir Royale at about 220 and hot chocolate with Bailey's at least 180. But eggnog also contains 6 grams of saturated fat, making it the worst offender [source: Pikul].

    Soda water with your vodka or gin may not be adding any nutrients to your diet, but it will help you subtract some calories -- salvation when you're navigating the rest of the feast (or just the hors d'oeuvres).


    7: Whole Wheat Flour for White Flour

    Not many holiday dishes are made with Wonder Bread, but lots of them are created with the help of white flour. Nutritionally speaking, when it comes to white bread ... well, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

    Many pastas and breads are made with white flour, and these refined carbs cause a spike in blood sugar and aren't filling. Not a great combination, considering the culinary pleasures to come.

    If you're a baker, try replacing half of the all-purpose flour required in a recipe with whole wheat flour. Switching out just one cup (237 grams) of white or wheat equals a boost of fiber, vitamin B-6, folic acid, magnesium, potassium and zinc [source: Magee].


      6: Lean Ground Turkey for Ground Beef

      What's a holiday without your grandmother's Italian wedding soup? Chicken stock, spinach, pasta -- and those perfect meatballs.

      If you're thinking about lightening up your holiday meal, no doubt you've thought of replacing the ground beef in the meatballs with ground turkey. But it's not quite so simple. Some ground turkey is worse than ground beef, in terms of fat and calories (and therefore your weight and heart health). What you have to look for is lean ground turkey or ground turkey breast -- only white meat or lean dark meat. It's not turkey itself that's automatically better. It's all about the cut [source: Dr. Gourmet].


      5: Egg Whites for Eggs

      Half baked?

      Did you know you can even bake with egg whites if you'd like? You can, but it takes a little adjusting to achieve the same texture. Consider replacing some of the whole eggs, if not all -- two egg whites to one whole egg [source: Taste of Home].

      For some, it's brunch that makes the holiday, not dinner. Strata, frittata, quiche -- eggy dishes full of meats and cheeses and vegetables, paired with a glass of orange juice.

      The nutritional concern with eggs is their cholesterol content. The recommended daily limit for someone with normal cholesterol levels is 300 mg, and a whole egg contains more than half that [source: Behrenbeck]. So while you're eating lots of cholesterol-unfriendly holiday foods, an extra dollop of dietary cholesterol isn't exactly what you need if you're concerned about your risk for heart attack and stroke.

      The whites of an egg, however, don't have the cholesterol, and you can still make a fantastic omelet with them.


      4: Coconut Milk, Yogurt or Tofu for Cream

      Fall and winter call for warmth -- tomato basil, butternut squash soups and lobster bisque. Unfortunately, those soups, along with many dips, pastas and desserts, call for cream. Just 1 fluid ounce (29.6 milliliters) of heavy cream contains 34 percent of your recommended daily value of saturated fat [source: Self].

      Take a page out of the vegan cookbook and try coconut milk in desserts that call for heavy cream, like chocolate mousse. Swap out light cream for soy creamer. Soft tofu mixed with soy milk can be blended into sauces, as can yogurt. All are less fatty than cream, and tofu has the added benefit of a little extra protein.


        3: Brown Rice for White Rice

        The Replacements

        Thinking of making the switch? A study published in June 2010 showed that replacing servings of white rice with brown rice or other whole grains reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes [source: Harvard School of Public Health].

        Who says you have to celebrate the holidays with some type of giant roast meat? Some of us are more inclined to sushi rolls. Rice, whether it's in rice pudding or stuffing, is a supporting star on holiday tables the country over.

        White rice doesn't have a lot of nutritional value, though. That's because it's brown rice that's basically been scrubbed squeaky-clean into just plain starch -- and the nutrients disappeared with the milling and polishing [source: WHFoods].

        Brown rice has more vitamins and minerals, and it makes you feel fuller than the same amount of white rice does.


        2: Greek Yogurt for Sour Cream

        In soups and dips, desserts and salad dressings, sour cream makes an appearance at most holiday parties. It's delicious (and essential to the perfect stroganoff), but it's also full of saturated fat. As far as clogged arteries go, it's worse to consume saturated fat than it is to consume foods that are high in cholesterol [source: Ward].

        Luckily, Greek yogurt makes the perfect substitute. It has a nice, thick texture and a bit of a tang to it. Plus, it has a ton of protein, along with potassium, zinc, calcium and vitamins [source: Zelman]. Greek yogurt also works as a stand-in for mayonnaise in dishes like chicken salad.


        1: Vanilla, Nutmeg or Cinnamon for Sugar

        No Sugar Tonight

        Use a similar tactic with sugar that you did with salt -- try vanilla, nutmeg or cinnamon when baking to decrease your sugar intake. Plenty of flavor, fewer empty calories.

        Anyone who can get through a holiday without a full-fledged sugar dependency has an iron will. Sugar cookies, pumpkin pie with vanilla bean ice cream, spice cake and candy, candy, candy -- it's not a special occasion without the sweet stuff.

        The American Heart Association's recommended limit for added sugars is 6 teaspoons (29.6 milliliters) a day for women, 9 (44 milliliters) for men [source: AHA]. Sugar is linked to both obesity and diabetes, and those who are already carrying a few extra pounds or a diabetes diagnosis know what too much sweetness can do to the body.