Even for those who are health conscious and careful about what they eat all year long, the holidays are a time when people easily slip into less-than-optimal eating habits. Good news! You do not have to choose between enjoying holiday treats and maintaining your healthy lifestyle. Here are four ingredients that can be added to holiday recipes for a healthier version of your favorite holiday-season indulgences.
Cocoa in the form of dark chocolate can enhance cardiovascular health and contain flavonoids with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, plus it tastes decadent and delicious. 1 You can replace milk chocolate with dark chocolate in any recipe that calls for it, for a healthier version. Choose organic, fair trade, dark chocolate with a high flavonoid content to reap the most health benefits. 2
Cranberry is a traditionally festive flavor that you can feel good about. Cranberries have a number of health benefits, including improving urinary tract and cardiovascular health, as well as the potential for cancer prevention. 3 Toss some dried cranberries into your favorite holiday cookie or square recipe, and add an extra helping of homemade cranberry sauce to your plate this holiday. You can also mix dried cranberries or cranberry jelly into yogurt, chia pudding or oatmeal, and top it on toast.
Although more studies need to be conducted on the various species of cinnamon to determine its efficacy, this spice has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years and may be beneficial for those with diabetes and gastrointestinal issues. 4 At the very least, cinnamon is a healthier way to add some festive flavor to your holiday treats instead of loading up on the typical sugary candy and processed milk chocolate. Try making your own decadent hot chocolate using dark chocolate, nut milk, and cinnamon for all the indulgence and none of the sugar of your usual holiday desserts.
If you are looking for an ingredient that can add sweetness to your holiday recipes without depending on refined sugar, dates are a great choice. Adding chopped or puréed dates to baked goods or raw desserts is a very effective way to sweeten them while remaining health conscious. 5 Dates are also a good source of iron and fiber; however they do contain a significant amount of natural sugars and should be eaten in moderation. 6
Nuts are nutrient-packed powerhouses, so go ahead and indulge in your favorite pecan pie or spiced nut mix. Nuts are a good source of antioxidants, which help the body recover from harmful free radical damage. 7 8 Nuts may also improve heart health by lowering levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and increasing levels of healthy (HDL) cholesterol. 9 10
Nuts are a great snacking option on their own during the holidays when you need something healthy on the go. They are rich in fiber, which makes them filling and good for your digestive system. 11 Note, they are calorie dense, so be mindful of your portions if you are watching caloric intake.
Oftentimes, holiday baking means refined sugar. Diets high in refined sugar are associated with multiple health concerns, including diabetes, heart disease, and depression. 12 13 14 You can still bake your favorite holiday goodies while being health conscious. There are a number of natural sweetener options that you can use in place of sugar in any recipe. Try swapping out the sugar in your favorite holiday cookies for honey, stevia, or another naturally-derived sweetener. For more information, see our guide to sugar alternatives.
Raw Dark Chocolate Truffles
These raw dark chocolate truffles are a healthy way to indulge this season. Customize them to your taste by choosing from the recipe’s suggested toppings or adding your own.
Recipe courtesy of Bastyr University.
- 2 cups walnuts
- 1 cup Medjool dates, pitted
- 1 small Haas avocado, cut into small chunks
- 2 tbsp. raw local honey
- ¼ cup coconut oil
- ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
- ½ cup cocoa or cacao, unsweetened (plus more if used as an optional topping)
- 1 pinch salt
- Shredded coconut
- Cocoa nibs
- Sesame seeds
- Chia seeds
- Chopped cranberries
- Sea salt
Add the walnuts and dates to a food processor and pulse for 1–2 minutes, until finely chopped and beginning to stick together.
Add in remaining ingredients until well blended. The fudge “dough” will stick together and be moist.
Remove fudge from the food processor and form into a ball, then break off small chunks and roll into about 15 smaller balls.
Roll the balls in the toppings of your choice (or sprinkle, if using sea salt).
Once rolled, place the balls in the fridge. This allows the coconut oil to firm up, creating a delicious fudgelike truffle.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2020 and has been updated in October 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.