If your doctor has warned you to watch what you eat because of high blood cholesterol levels, it doesn't mean you have to skip all your favorite holiday foods at dinners and parties. With a bit of creativity in how you cook, what you choose from a buffet, or how you order in a restaurant, you can feel satisfied and festive while taking care of your health.
Sure, there are holiday foods to avoid, or at least minimize, but you can still enjoy most foods you like with a little know-how.
The first thing to know? You need to be aware not just about how much cholesterol lurks in the foods you eat but also the fat, because it also raises cholesterol. "The saturated fat is more important than the cholesterol," says Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, LD, RD, the director of nutrition for WebMD. "Look at the saturated fat but also at total fat; it's going to have an impact."
Your holiday mission, then, is to look at your holiday diet and minimize your intake of fat and cholesterol while still enjoying yourself. Zelman and other nutrition experts insist it's possible. Here's how, from the first toast to the dessert.
A Slimmer Eggnog or Other Toast
If you love to toast the season with an eggnog or two, be aware: One cup of regular eggnog has 343 calories, 19 grams of fat (more than 11 grams of that saturated) and 150 milligrams of cholesterol.
But there are alternatives. "There are a lot of lower-fat eggnogs on the market now," says Jeannie Gazzaniga Moloo, RD, PhD, a Roseville, Calif., dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
You may have to taste-test a few to find one closest to the real thing.
If eggnog is something you love, "go for a small amount," Zelman says, even if it's the full-fat stuff. You could also consider starting a new toasting tradition -- with cider or wine, says Zelman. Both are kinder to cholesterol-watchers. And studies say one glass of wine a day for women, two for men helps protect your heart.
Choose Your Appetizer
What buffet table full of appetizers isn't loaded down with cheeses? If you're headed to a wine-and-cheese party or a nibbling party, beware.
The wrap-type appetizers are among the worst, Zelman says, as far as figuring out your fat toll. "You don't know what's in the food you are going to eat." So steer clear of the wrap-type foods and go for something that's not such a mystery. Little grilled chicken skewers are probably a good bet, Zelman says. "Sushi would be great."
You can't expect a party hostess to put out reduced-fat cheese, but you can limit your portions, Moloo says, and then turn to substitutes that are as tasty. Nuts, for one. "An ounce of nuts is better than the cheese, since it's got monounsaturated fats," heart-healthier than saturated.
But calories "add up fast on nuts," Moloo warns. "A small handful is enough."
Once you're done with the nuts, try to graze the vegetable platter, if there is one, Moloo says. "Because of the fiber content, they can actually help lower cholesterol."
Never mind the saturated fat in the chips -- the dips are also loaded with fat. If you're the hostess, you can turn to low-fat dips, perhaps labeling them discretely for guests concerned about cholesterol.
If you're the guest, your best bet is to eat them sparingly -- or at least dip veggies in them, not chips.
Pick Your Meats Wisely
Eat all meat skinless, Moloo advises. And look for leaner cuts -- a filet, for instance, instead of cheaper beef cuts.
While casseroles of tuna and other meat are plentiful during the holidays -- and are often family favorites -- opt instead for a plain piece of meat if you can, says Moloo.
If turkey is a main course, breast white meat is the leaner cut, says Bethany Thayer, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and manager of Worksite Health Promotion at Henry Ford Health System, Detroit. "Instead of having the wings, have white meat," she says.
Choose the Right Fixings
What's turkey without a ladle or two of gravy, you say? "Gravy is chock full of saturated fat," Zelman says. It's on her holiday foods-to-avoid list. "Skip the gravy if you can." Or slim it down, if you're the cook, by making a turkey-broth gravy.
If you make your own stuffing, use oil instead of butter -- and less of it, Thayer says. "Look for ways to add fruits and vegetables." That will automatically make the stuffing lower in calories than adding butter -- and higher in fiber. Consider adding dried cherries, raisins, or cranberries, she says.
Vegetables: The Simpler, the Better
Green bean casserole smothered in sour cream or cream of mushroom soup and shoestring potatoes may be a family tradition, but it carries a hefty fat price tag. Steam green beans without the toppings instead, experts suggest.
When it comes to vegetables, "the least prepared a food is, the better," Moloo says.
Or turn to a wintry vegetable such as roasted butternut squash, Zelman suggests. "Simple, roasted, not in a casserole," she says. Unless you made a casserole yourself, it's a mystery what's in it, she says. You have no idea the total fat grams or cholesterol.
Another good choice: roasted sweet potatoes, maybe with a dollop of melted marshmallows, but no butter, Zelman suggests.
Pies tend to be very high in fat due to their crusts, Moloo says. A slice of pumpkin pie -- one-eighth of a 9-inch pie -- has 316 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 65 milligrams of cholesterol. A slice of pecan pie weighs in at 503 calories, 27 grams of fat (but only 5 of it saturated), and 106 milligrams of cholesterol.
You could leave the crust behind, saving a lot of fat grams.
If you're the cook, make simple substitutions to recipes, such as making a graham cracker crust with a bit of margarine instead of a higher-fat pastry crust, Thayer says.
You can also consider a crustless pie.
Or you could turn to desserts such as sorbet; fruit with raspberry sauce or low-fat ice cream; or fresh fruit over angel food cake -- all low in fat, Moloo says.
Start the Day Right
No one's perfect during holiday feasts, but you can offset some damage by eating the right breakfast, Zelman suggests. "Start your day with oatmeal," she says. "Put in nuts and raisins. It's a great cholesterol-lowering attempt for the day."
A 3-ounce serving has 307 calories, 5 milligrams of fat, and no cholesterol.
You may feel so virtuous after the oatmeal breakfast that it will be easy the rest of the day and night to pick wisely -- and enjoy.