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T his time of year, health-conscious diners face a challenge: how to navigate creamy soups, rich meats, flaky pie crusts, and other fatty, salty, and sugary foods while enjoying the flavors of the season. “The holidays really can have adverse health effects beyond just weight gain,” says Jamie Cooper, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia.
For example, in a 2013 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Cooper and her colleagues found that in addition to gaining about 2 pounds, on average, during the holidays, people experienced increases in body fat, blood pressure, and resting heart rate. And being active didn’t protect against those changes. “Even small increases in diastolic and systolic blood pressure can have a meaningful impact on health,” Cooper says.
As for the extra weight, evidence suggests it sticks around. “Once you put it on,” Cooper says, “it’s hard to lose it.”
In addition, heavy meals can wreak havoc on your digestion—think diarrhea, heartburn, and gas—not to mention your heart. A study of almost 2,000 heart-attack survivors suggested that eating a heavy meal could quadruple the risk of having a heart attack on the same day. A smaller study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that a single meal high in saturated fat could impair artery function.
But you don’t have to dine on steamed broccoli while everyone else feasts on turkey and stuffing. “Many of the foods on the holiday table are whole foods that are perfectly healthy,” says Randy Evans, R.D., a dietitian at the University of Kansas Health System. “It’s the way we prepare them and the sheer volume we eat that can be a problem.” Choose these healthy holiday food stars to dine wisely and well.
It’s the best option among the traditional centerpieces. There are 168 calories and 2 grams of fat in a 4-ounce serving of breast meat without skin. (The skin adds about 50 calories and 6 grams of fat.) Spiral ham is comparable in calories and fat but has more than 1,000 mg of sodium in 4 ounces. And standing rib roast has about twice the calories and 16 times the fat. Some turkeys are injected with a saline solution to make them juicier, so check labels; they can have as much as 300 mg of sodium in 4 ounces.
Pumpkin spice has been a long-standing holiday flavor trend in foods and beverages. That would be fine except that “spice” often means added sugars, not just nutmeg and cinnamon.
But pumpkin itself is a nutrition powerhouse high in fiber, vitamins A and C (important for vision and fighting infection), and antioxidants, and it has just 30 calories per cup. Whether you’re using it in a pie or a savory dish such as risotto or pasta, choose fresh or frozen versions, says Allison Sylvetsky Meni, Ph.D., an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at George Washington University.
“If you’re opting for canned, make sure you read the label,” she adds. Look for 100 percent pure pumpkin, not pumpkin-pie filling. That has 120 calories and 27 grams of sugars in a half-cup—nearly 7 teaspoons—a vast majority of it added. And that’s even before it gets into the pie. (Speaking of pie, a lot of the calories and fat are in the crust. Try our recipe for Crustless Pumpkin Pie, below.)
3. Sweet Potatoes
Another brightly hued vegetable that’s high in fiber, vitamins A and C, and antioxidants, sweet potatoes don’t need much to make them taste good. Just bake them with a little olive oil. Adding marshmallows, butter, and brown sugar ups the fat and calorie load significantly. There are 149 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar in a half-cup of sweet potato casserole vs. 115 calories, 9 grams of sugar, and almost no fat in a medium sweet potato. Avoid canned varieties packed in heavy syrup.
Check the label on canned cranberry sauce and you’ll find over 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugars in each quarter-cup serving. You could skip them, but these tart berries are high in fiber and rich in healthy plant compounds called polyphenols, some of which may improve your body’s ability to process glucose. “You can make your own cranberry sauce, but you’ll still have to add some sugar just to make the taste tolerable,” Sylvetsky Meni says. “At least making it yourself will allow you to reduce the sugar content, perhaps by half, and not even notice it.”
5. Hot Cocoa
Credit the flavanols, good-for-you antioxidants that may improve blood vessel function, for cocoa’s spot in the “healthy” column. A 2013 study by Harvard University found that people not diagnosed with dementia (the average age of the participants was 73) who had impaired blood flow to the brain and who drank two cups of flavanol-rich hot cocoa daily for 30 days saw an improvement in the brain’s blood circulation and on memory tests. Forgo the instant mixes; make your own using unsweetened cocoa, low-fat milk (which adds calcium), and a teaspoon of sugar.
6. Shrimp Cocktail
Skip the cheese and crackers, and choose shrimp as an appetizer. Five large shrimp have only 33 calories and 6 grams of protein. Shrimp do have cholesterol, but dietary cholesterol doesn’t have a significant impact on your blood lipids, though experts once thought it did. And unlike many cholesterol-rich foods, shrimp is low in saturated fat, a type of fat that’s linked to heart disease risk. Shrimp also contain antioxidants, including selenium and astaxanthin. Note that cocktail sauce may contain high amounts of sodium.
Go Easy on These 5 Items
Eggnog. One cup has 224 calories and 20 grams of sugars. And if it’s made with raw eggs, there’s a food-safety risk. If you do indulge, heat the egg mixture to 160°F before adding the other ingredients, use egg substitutes, or buy pasteurized eggnog.
Coffee drinks. It’s the season for peppermint lattes, but a
16-ounce cup made with 2 percent milk and whipped cream can have as much as 440 calories (almost enough to count as a meal) and 54 grams (13 teaspoons) of sugars.
Pecan pie. Even though the fat in pecans is the unsaturated healthy type, a slice can have more than 500 calories and 33 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugars. Pumpkin pie, with 280 calories per slice, is a healthier choice.
Green-bean casserole. This classic made with green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and crispy fried onions comes in at 227 calories in a half-cup. That’s a lot when you consider that a half-cup of plain green beans has only 20 calories. A lighter alternative is steamed beans sautéed in a little butter and tossed with slivered almonds and lemon juice.
Dips. Many are cream-based and can be high in sodium, too. You can sub plain Greek yogurt for cream cheese and sour cream in dip recipes.
Crustless Pumpkin Pie
Makes 8 servings
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin puree
1 can (12 fl oz.) fat-free evaporated milk
½ cup light brown sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg whites from large eggs
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 ginger snap cookies, crushed
1. Heat oven to 350°F. Spray a 9-inch glass pie pan with nonstick spray.
2. In a large bowl whisk together pumpkin, milk, sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, and vanilla until well blended.
3. Spoon into prepared pan. Bake 45-50 minutes or until the filling jiggles like gelatin when the plate is gently moved.
4. Cool completely. Right before serving sprinkle with crushed ginger snaps.
Per serving: 130 calories, 1.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 6 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 21 g sugars, 80 mg sodium
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the December 2017 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
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