Are visions of sugarplums dancing in your head? Are they dancing into your mouth? Before you throw up your hands and land face-down in a pile of mashed potatoes, take control of your holiday diet with some healthy alternatives and strategies.

“Plan now to be successful over the holidays,” says Sherri Hoyt, a registered dietitian with outpatient nutrition counseling/community education at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “Include exercise in the mix (even if only for 10 minutes), de-stress by remembering to breathe—and pour a cup of tea.” Tea contains an amino acid linked to helping reduce stress and increase relaxation, she notes. “Keep it seasonal with a cinnamon, orange or holiday chai spice blend.”

While you’re sipping that healthy, relaxing tea, consider some additional advice from Lori Jones, a registered dietitian and American Heart Association Midwest Affiliate volunteer: Eat something healthy, like a piece of fruit, before heading to holiday parties so you’re not starving when you arrive; focus on non-food holiday traditions; and don’t drink your calories—save them for a few special food indulgences.

However, even indulging “just a little” can be challenging, Jones says. “For some people, it seems like having a little will propel them into out-of-control eating followed by regrets. If you follow this pattern, avoid temptation by not purchasing those foods or having them around. If they do make it into your home, immediately serve them to guests or package them up on goodie trays to give to neighbors. Another strategy is to immediately freeze those tempting items.”

Another common holiday diet trap is the party buffet. “Pick out one or two treats that really appeal to you and really savor the bites,” advises Dr. Amy Moore, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University. “Slow down and enjoy the food with conversation. If you want to save extra calories to indulge, skip somewhere else—don’t butter the roll, skip the store-bought cookie you can purchase any time of year, and skip a sweetened beverage.”

The stress and busyness of the holidays also can lead to unhealthy, ‘on-the-go’ food choices, such as fast food. But a bit of forethought can help you avoid that pitfall, Hoyt says. “Be sure to fill up your pantry and refrigerator with everything you need to pull together healthy meals in a flash after a full day of shopping or long day at work,” she says. “Plan to keep the ingredients for five quick-to-fix family favorites on hand at all times. Maybe it’s already cooked quinoa, bags of stir-fry veggies and chicken breast tenders all stashed in the freezer. Veggies are a quick way to fill up without filling out (over the holidays and any time of year), so plan to double the amount of vegetables called for in recipes, such as in soups, stews, casseroles and pizza.”

Holiday meals and feasts don’t have to be full-fat calorie fests, either. “Make simple swaps in holiday cooking to lighten up some traditionally heavy fare,” suggests Hoyt. For instance, make dressing with whole-grain bread and add dried fruits and nuts. Sauté using olive or canola oil instead of butter or margarine. Cook potatoes for mashing with garlic cloves for added flavor, and add moisture with fat-free plain Greek yogurt or buttermilk. Make pumpkin pie with evaporated skim milk, less sugar and an extra sprinkle of spice. Consider skipping the crust for added fat and calorie savings.

Jones adds that two basic rules can help keep the holidays healthy: Choose healthier food items at every opportunity outside of the holiday events, and don’t neglect your physical activity routine. “This two-fold strategy will ensure you are eating healthy, nutritious food most of the time, provide leeway to enjoy some holiday treats here and there, and help you to burn off excess calories as you enjoy the holiday season,” she says.

More tips and ideas for healthy holidays are available from the American Heart Association. Go to heart.org and search ‘holiday eating’ for an array of advice, including the AHA’s Holiday Healthy Eating Guide.

Glazed Sweet Potato Cubes

Serves 4; 1/2 cup per serving

A holiday meal doesn’t seem complete without sweet potatoes. This healthful version will be a family favorite for years to come.


Cooking spray

2 T chopped pecans

2 T fresh orange juice

1 T honey

1 T  light brown sugar

1 t olive oil

1/2 t vanilla extract

1/4 t ground cinnamon

1 lb sweet potato(es), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly spray a 1 1 /2-quart shallow baking dish with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the ingredients except the sweet potato cubes. Add the cubes, stirring to coat. Arrange in a single layer in baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil.

Bake for 40 minutes, stirring halfway through. Stir again. Bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until the cubes are tender and the glaze has thickened.


Calories 168

Total Fat 4.0 g

Saturated Fat 0.5 g

Trans Fat 0.0 g

Polyunsaturated Fat 1.0 g

Monounsaturated Fat 0.0 g

Cholesterol 0 mg

Sodium 64 mg

Carbohydrates 32 g

Fiber 4 g

Sugars 13 g

Protein 2 g

Dietary Exchanges: 2 starch, 1/2 fat

Recipe courtesy of the American Heart Association.

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