I'm Dreaming of a Light Christmas -- with Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

WebMD Live Events Transcript; Event Date: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

From the WebMD Archives

If you think eating healthy means giving up your favorite holiday foods, think again. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, who has lightened thousands of recipes over the years in her syndicated column, "The Recipe Doctor," and is "The Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, joined us on Dec. 15 to help make your holiday feasting healthy and happy.

If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR: Welcome back to WebMD Live, Elaine. Thanks for joining us today. What are some of your family's food traditions during the holiday season?

MAGEE: One of our favorite food traditions is we definitely make gingerbread people and decorate them and give them to neighbors and friends. We also invent a new fudge recipe every year. Last year was German chocolate cake fudge in honor of my husband, who adores German chocolate cake. On Christmas Eve my girls and I make cinnamon rolls, homemade with the bread machine helping with the dough, and then it rises in the refrigerator during the night and Christmas morning we just pop them in the oven while we're getting ready to open presents.

MODERATOR: How do you keep the traditions and yet eat in a healthy way?

MAGEE: Because I am who I am, I never made regular cinnamon rolls or regular gingerbread people. I always made light versions of those foods, so that's what my family is used to. I just literally tested a cheese ball recipe so I could share it with this chat, and of course the whole time I'm making substitutions, so that it's a light cheese ball.

I think one of the keys to staying on track with your health during the holidays is to stick with your exercise plan as much as possible. Make it a priority. And go a little bit more out of your way to eat mostly healthy meals and snacks during this time. That way some of these extras that we enjoy won't make that big of a dent. I have to remind myself, the irony is this is the busiest time of year and yet it is the most crucial time to keep up with your exercise program for two reasons. One is we tend to get a few more calories per day this time of year, and the exercise helps neutralize those effects. The second reason is many people are very stressed at this time of year and one of our best stress reducers is exercise. And getting enough sleep. I found I sleep better when I'm staying on track with my exercise.

MODERATOR: Let's talk about the party buffet table. You mentioned a lightened cheese ball. Can you tell us how you lightened it?

MAGEE: You can do these lightened steps on any cheese ball recipe. I happened to pull up a top-rated cheese ball recipe from So I'll walk you through this recipe, but know these same changes you can make to your cheese ball recipe.

Instead of 8 ounces of cream cheese, I used light cream cheese. For a quarter cup of butter I used 2 tablespoons of a low trans margarine with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon (i.e., Take Control or Land O' Lakes Fresh Buttery Spread). Then they add 2 teaspoons of cheddar cheese sauce powder, from a macaroni and cheese box (or I think Spice Islands makes one). Then instead of a cup of shredded cheddar, I used reduced fat sharp cheddar. Then I doubled some of the other ingredients that are going to add flavor without fat. For instance, I added 2 tablespoons sliced green onion; 2 teaspoons lemon juice; 2 teaspoons fresh parsley finely chopped. Then it takes about 3 tablespoons of chopped walnuts to coat the outside. This makes one cheese ball. You could also add to this recipe; don't add the cheddar cheese powder but add a couple tablespoons of bleu cheese. It's a way of adding a lot of flavor without a lot of fat. Bleu cheese has a lot of flavor for a small amount.

In general, look for crackers that have no trans fat, lower fat and higher fiber, such as reduced fat Triscuits.

MEMBER QUESTION: That sounds good. What else can you serve besides the usual veggie platter with ranch dip?

MAGEE: I actually love those veggie platters. It's a little bit more challenging during the winter months to find good looking produce. Just remember, you can do a light ranch very easily, even buy some great tasting light bottled ranch dressing.

But in addition to the veggie platter, you can always do a nice fruit kabob platter. There is always a handful of good-looking fruit items around this time of year. Basically find what looks good and put it together in a fruit salad or a fruit kabob. Use lemon juice, grapefruit juice, or orange juice to sprinkle over the top of the cut fruit to keep it from browning as it's sitting out on the buffet table.

MODERATOR: Low-fat yogurt with vanilla and cinnamon makes a nice dip for fruit.

MAGEE: For a small amount of effort, it makes a really nice presentation. I'm all for making fruit look good.

A couple other ideas for a quick appetizer buffet. So, so easy, is using that light cream cheese in a tub. Literally scooping it out, putting it on a nice serving dish, you can top this with a cranberry/orange or cranberry/raspberry compote or relish and serve with crackers. Another nice way to serve the cream cheese is to put jalapeño jelly on top and serve with crackers. I picked the jalapeño and cranberry because they're festive colors, but any unique and fancy relish or chutney would go nicely as a spread.

MODERATOR: Onion relish or mango pepper jelly is great too, as is Major Grey's chutney.

MAGEE: The key here is light cream cheese and serving it with something higher in fiber and lower in fat, like the crackers we talked about earlier. Even a nice sliced baguette can work; it's bread. If you can find a whole grain baguette, go for it. Even that is pretty good.

MODERATOR: Let's talk about holiday baking.

MEMBER QUESTION: I see a new sweetener advertised that is half Splenda and half sugar. Have you tried it yet? Does it work as well for baking as they say?

MAGEE: Great question. Thanks so much for asking. I created this blend -- ha ha! I've been using half sugar, half Splenda the last year myself. Basically what they've done is to blend it for you and sell it off the shelf that way. So have I tried the actual mixed product? No, because I mix it myself at home. I'll tell you why I prefer to do that, because in many recipes it will call for a cup of white sugar and a cup of brown. If I'm mixing it at home, I substitute it for the granulated (white) sugar, then add the brown sugar myself. I like the freedom of choosing to use it for the white sugar and add the brown sugar myself. Using this type of half Splenda/half white sugar equation tends to work pretty well. My husband tends to know when I've used Splenda, but most people are going to be in the dark that you've used half Splenda. It's just a simple way to cut the sugar calories in half without changing the texture or taste too much.

MEMBER QUESTION: Can you make a direct substitution of the Splenda mix for real sugar, cup for cup? Will the cookies have the same crispy edges and same flavor?

MAGEE: Great question and it is going to depend on the cookie. You may want to do one-third Splenda, two-thirds sugar to start with. You may find better results with that for a higher profile cookie. You're going to have generally better results in a muffin or cake. Cookies tend to be tougher candidates for lightening fat and sugar basically because a big part of a cookie's characteristics are about fat and sugar.

Let me just give you a quick tip about lightening the fat in cookies. A pretty sure-proof way that works is to substitute that low trans margarine with 8 grams of fat per tablespoon -- cup for cup -- for butter or shortening. This is going to lower the fat from 12 grams per tablespoon to 8 grams of fat per tablespoon, basically cutting the fat by one-third. Every time I've done that they've turned out excellent. If I cut a little bit more fat than that, it's less "cookie" and it becomes more like a muffin because you're changing it too much. I tried this, substituting the lower fat margarine recently in a Russian tea cake recipe and it was awesome. I tried it in the thumbprint cookie recipe. Again, awesome. Nobody knew the difference.