Naughty and Nice Holiday Foods

Avoid holiday weight gain, and still enjoy the feast.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 25, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Gorging on favorite holiday foods can widen your waistline, but they don't have to spell dietary disaster. In fact, some of your guiltiest pleasures may be good for you.

Putting Holiday Weight Gain in Perspective

At this time of year, you can hardly escape hearing that Americans gain about 5 pounds from the constant celebrating.

True, some people probably pack on that much, or more, with holiday foods. For the rest of us, the weight increase is actually a lot less, however.

That's the conclusion from a New England Journal of Medicine study, which found most people gained about a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

But that's no reason to eat with wild abandon during the holidays.

"Putting on a pound or so every year makes a big difference when you never get around to losing it," says Pat Vasconcellos, RD, a Massachusetts-based spokeswoman for The American Dietetic Association.

In a decade's time, the effects of nibbling a few cookies here and there may easily add 10 pounds to your frame.

"The trick is to minimize the damage from holiday foods and have fun at the same time," says Janice Bissex, MS, RD, co-author of The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers.

Tips to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

Eating regular meals and snacks every day makes it easier to resist overdoing it at festive events. When you occasionally skimp on meals because you're busy shopping, wrapping, and baking, nosh on a protein-packed snack, such as low-fat yogurt or reduced-fat cheese, to blunt your hunger before gathering with family or friends.

At parties, pile your plate with lower-fat foods to limit high-calorie splurges. The following top picks have fewer calories, fat, and sodium and more fiber than other holiday fare:

  • Whole grains, such as whole-wheat rolls, wild rice, and quinoa
  • Shrimp, lobster, and other steamed seafood
  • Plain or lightly dressed vegetables
  • Meat and poultry without the gravy
  • Salad greens (lightly dressed)
  • Fresh fruit

'Good for You' Holiday Foods

You know that lower-fat foods are the wisest choices no matter what time of year. But the benefits of holiday fare don't end with fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

"Many holiday foods that people think they should avoid are actually healthy in small amounts," says Vasconcellos.

As long as you mind your portions, these perennial favorites are wise choices. For fewer calories, prepare them with an artificial sweetener used in cooking, such as Splenda. Here's what they have to offer, besides calories:

Applesauce and Apples

Heart-healthy fiber does indeed keep the doctor away. Look for unsweetened applesauce to get the fiber without the sugar. Bake apples with the skin to get a potent flavonoid called quercitin, which helps prevent heart disease.


You get the most bone-building calcium and protein from hard cheeses.

Cranberry Sauce (Unsweetened)

Cranberries spell trouble for bacteria that cause most urinary tract infections. If you like sweet cranberries, add a minimal amount of sugar, or artificial sweetener.

Dark Chocolate

Seventy percent dark chocolate contains the most flavonols -- helpful plant substances that help decrease cholesterol.

Green Beans

Naturally low in calories, string beans are loaded with vitamin K, which helps protect your bones. Also, a good source of vitamin C and vitamin A. But skip heavy sauces with this veggie. Try beans lightly tossed with olive oil and lemon.


Nuts are chock-full of heart-healthy unsaturated fat, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

Pumpkin Pie

This rich orange vegetable contains carotenoids for making vitamin A in the body and fighting free radicals. Pumpkin is also a good source of potassium and fiber. Beware: most pies are loaded with sugar. Use artificial sweetener instead of sugar for a lower calorie dessert.

Yams/Sweet Potatoes

Yams offer carotenoids, potassium, vitamin C, and fiber. Candied yams are high in sugar. Bake with a bit of brown sugar, or with artificial sweetener, for the taste without the calories.

Make Nice With Naughty Holiday Foods

Sure, they taste great and they tempt you to eat too much, but it rarely pays to avoid favorite holiday foods, no matter how caloric.

"Depriving yourself of a holiday treat can backfire and make you crave the food even more, leading to overeating," says Bissex.

Choose wisely, Bissex recommends.

"Pick what to splurge on rather than mindlessly nibbling on any party food that comes your way," she says.

Knowing the calorie counts of holiday foods may stop you from reaching for another ladle of gravy, a second piece of cheesecake, or another cup of egg nog.



Egg nog with alcohol, 1 cup


Gravy, 1/4 cup


Pecan pie, 1/8 of 9-inch pie


Pumpkin pie, 1/8 of 9-inch pie


Cheesecake, 1/6 of cake


Cheddar cheese, 1 ounce


Snack chips, 1 ounce


Sugar cookies, 2 small


Hershey Kisses, 9 pieces


Fudge, 1 ounce


Potato latke, 1 medium


Stuffing, 1/2 cup


Mixed nuts, 1 ounce


Mashed potatoes (made with
milk and butter), 1 cup


The buffet table is groaning under the weight of holiday goodies, but food is not alone in packing on the pounds. Alternate alcoholic beverages with calorie-free drinks, such as water or diet soda, at parties or family gatherings. You'll feel better the next day, and take in far fewer calories.



White Russian, 8 ounces


Gin and Tonic, 8 ounces


Rum, 1.5 ounces


Wine, 4 ounces


Wine spritzer, 4 ounces (made with 2 ounces wine and diet ginger ale)


(Note: The white Russian is made with 1.5 ounces each vodka and coffee liqueur and 6.5 ounces light cream; gin and tonic has 1.5 ounces gin and 6.5 ounces tonic water.)

Don't Let Holiday Foods Get the Best of You

Curb calories from so-called naughty foods by taking tiny portions. The first few bites of any food provide the most pleasure. Once you've finished your treat, fight the urge for more.

  • Sit far from buffet tables, candy dishes, and cookie-laden platters.
  • Excuse yourself from the dinner table when done eating.
  • Keep your mouth busy by talking with friends and family.
  • Chew gum or suck on a sugarless breath mint to prevent picking.
  • If you're able, brush your teeth; the taste of toothpaste dulls taste buds.

Making Holiday Foods Healthier

Food preparation techniques that reduce calories, fat, and sodium go a long way to keeping you healthy during the holidays. Lighten up your favorite holiday foods and create new recipes with these 15 tips:

  1. Mash white potatoes with low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth instead of milk, butter, and salt.
  2. Roast vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, green beans, squash, and carrots to bring out their natural flavor.
  3. Prepare favorite dips with fat-free sour cream or yogurt.
  4. Mash cooked sweet potatoes with orange juice instead of butter.
  5. Skip one of the crusts on fruit pies; prepare a fruit crisp instead of pie.
  6. Use a gravy separator to skim the fat when making gravy.
  7. Make a low-fat cheese sauce for casseroles.
  8. Substitute heart-healthy canola oil for butter and margarine.
  9. Consider lean pork tenderloin for holiday meals instead of fattier or saltier meats.
  10. Use part-skim or fat-free cheeses to make dishes such as cheesecake or lasagna.
  11. Prepare bread pudding with fat-free egg nog instead of full-fat milk for extra flavor; add raisins or dried fruit for more fiber.
  12. Prepare just one striking dessert and offer fruit, such as chocolate-dipped whole strawberries, instead of cookies and candy.
  13. For a festive appetizer, mix equal amounts of fat-free salsa and low-fat cottage cheese; serve with homemade whole-wheat pita chips or cut-up vegetables.
  14. Make a black bean dip flavored with lime juice and cilantro instead of salt.
  15. Let your guests nibble on homemade trail mix made with whole-grain cereal, dry roasted peanuts, and dried cranberries instead of fatty chips or other high-fat appetizers.

Show Sources


Patricia Vasconcellos, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Janice Bissex, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; co-author, The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeover.

Yanovski, J. New England Journal of Medicine, March 23, 2000; vol 342: pp 861-867.

National Institute of Medicine.

United States Department of Agriculture, on-line nutrient data base, Agricultural Research Service.

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info