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Holiday Food Traps

'Tis the season of tasty foods. The average person puts on a pound during the holidays. And if you're on a special diet because you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, holiday dishes can be especially tricky. But you can enjoy yourself and make good choices, if you know which items are naughty and nice.

Naughty: Turkey Skin

The skin of turkey and chicken is loaded with saturated fat. Per gram, all fats are higher in calories than protein or carbs, and bad fats raise cholesterol. Dark meat has more fat per bite than white meat. 

Nice: Serve yourself turkey breast or other white meat without the skin.

Naughty: Stuffing

Stuffing is typically loaded with butter and high-fat meats, such as sausage. A single scoop may have up to 550 calories.

Nice: Replace butter with low-sodium chicken broth, and skip pork sausage in favor of a low-fat chicken, oyster, or fruit alternative. Or try making wild rice stuffing instead.

Naughty: Buttery Mashed Potatoes

Usually, a lot of milk, butter, and salt go into this classic comfort food. A cup of homemade mashed potatoes made with whole milk and butter can have 237 calories.

Nice: Mash the potatoes with low-fat milk or low sodium, fat-free chicken stock and skip the butter, or salt.

Naughty: Sweet Potato Casserole

Sweet potatoes are a great choice. They've got vitamins A and C, plus a dose of calcium and potassium. But if they're in a casserole made with marshmallows, butter, and lots of sugar, that offsets their benefits.

Nice: Leave out the butter, cut the sugar in half, and lightly top with mini marshmallows. This will shave calories and fat, not taste.

Naughty: Pecan Pie

Although pecans are packed with healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, pecan pie is a minefield of sugar and calories. A typical slice of pecan pie has more than 500 calories. That's because it's usually made with oodles of corn syrup, butter, and sugar.

Nice: Nibble on a bowl of mixed nuts instead. If you can't resist the pie, choose pumpkin or opt for a very small slice and don't eat the crust.

Naughty: Fancy Finger Foods

Be careful at your job's holiday party; canapes and other fancy appetizers are often full of fat. Each one is tiny, but the calories add up quickly when there is an endless parade of hors d'oeuvres.

Nice: Chilled shrimp, veggies, and fresh fruits are nutritious low-calorie appetizers.

Naughty: Pigs-in-a-Blanket

Another steer-clear appetizer, each bite-sized piggy has 6 grams of fat, lots of sodium, and little to offer in the way of nutrition.

Nice: Fruit-in-a-blanket is a great alternative. Wrap figs or fuyu persimmon wedges with a thin strip of prosciutto, and then bake for 8 to 10 minutes.

Naughty: Potato Pancakes

Potato pancakes or latkes are a favorite during Hanukkah. But a single medium-sized latke can have more than 250 calories. Traditionally fried in oil, they are dripping with fat. What's more, the usual topping is sour cream.

Nice: If you're doing the cooking, use a small amount of vegetable oil or, better yet, cooking spray. If you're doing the eating, limit yourself to a couple of latkes with unsweetened applesauce on top.


Naughty: Caramel Popcorn

Large tins of flavored popcorn are a popular holiday gift. Although popcorn itself is a whole-grain snack, slathering on sugary caramel or other sweet syrups is a recipe for weight gain.

Nice: Stick to plain popcorn -- the crunch is just as satisfying without the extra calories.

Naughty: Egg Nog

All that alcohol, heavy cream, eggs, and sugar adds up. A single cup of egg nog contains about 340 calories and 19 grams of fat.

Nice: Make low-calorie egg nog with skim milk, egg substitutes, and artificial sweeteners.

Naughty: Mixed Drinks

Cocktails can be surprisingly high in calories. One serving of a white Russian made with light cream has about 350 calories.

Nice: Mix up a wine spritzer by adding a splash of wine and sparkling water to pomegranate or cranberry juice. This not only shaves calories, but also counts toward your fruit servings for the day.

Naughty: Cakes and Cookies

You may find that you crave carbs more during fall and winter. You don't want to give in by reaching for too many sweets, but you don't have to ignore the cravings either. Carbs taste good and make you feel good triggering the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that boosts mood.

Nice: The solution is to control portions or snack on complex carbs, such as whole-grain cereal or crackers.


Naughty: Milk Chocolates

Milk chocolates are high in fat and low in the nutrients found in purer forms of dark chocolate. Caramel or cream-filled chocolates don't do anything for your health, either.

Nice: Solid dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa is best, but only in small amounts. Choose dark chocolate with heart-healthy nuts.

Avoid Naughty Holiday Foods

Knowing which foods are naughty is a good start. Take it a step further by using these tips:

  • Talk to people. You'll slow down your eating pace.
  • At parties, sit or stand far from the buffet table.
  • Excuse yourself from the dinner table once you've had enough to eat.
  • Chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free candy to curb your desire to nibble.


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Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on February 06, 2014