Skip the Eggnog! These Holiday Foods Are Good for You

Careful not to overdo it—but a candy cane won't do any harm and may do some good.

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It's hard to avoid indulging during the holidays. But do you have to? Actually, holiday foods aren't all bad. Excluding, say, eggnog, fried latkes, and other calorie-laden treats, some things that could land on your plate this season are in fact healthy.

Oysters—which supposedly taste best in the winter months—are an example. Traditionally served in stew on Christmas Eve, the mollusks contain more zinc than any other food. Zinc is a mineral that helps fight off infections and heal wounds, making oysters good for the immune system. They also contain vitamin B12 and iron, required to make red blood cells, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for heart health.

[11 Easy Ways to Load Up on Healthy Omega-3 Fats]

Maybe you have a favorite holiday dish: green bean or sweet potato casserole—or, perhaps, oyster stew. Recipes for these and many other festive dishes usually call for whole milk or cream and butter. But with that slice of pecan pie, made with sugar and eggs, a single celebratory feast could easily max out your daily allowance of calories. Still, you can make lighter, healthier versions with a few improvements. Top green bean casserole with sliced almonds instead of fried onions, and use fat-free cream of mushroom soup instead of the regular kind, suggests Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In her dishes, Thayer uses skim milk and egg whites in lieu of whole milk and whole eggs.

Enjoy foods that make it the holidays for you, she says, but minimize your fat intake by abstaining from sides and desserts to which you are less attached or by tweaking their recipes. And once you've committed to cutting back, maximize your meal's healthfulness by adding these ingredients:

Nuts and seeds


Walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, and a variety of other nuts and seeds contain fiber and plant sterols, which may help lower cholesterol; a host of studies have shown that nuts favorably affect the risk of heart disease, says Penny Kris-Etherton, a nutrition professor at Penn State University. One strike against nuts is their calorie content, so snacking on more than a handful or so is a mistake if you're planning to have other fattening treats with your meal. A better way to eat them? Sprinkle nuts or seeds atop vegetables and fruits rather than using them in desserts, suggests Kris-Etherton. The American Heart Association recommends people eat at least 4 servings per week to improve cardiovascular health. [Brown Rice and 4 Other Foods That Can Help Prevent Diabetes]

Orange fruits and veggies


Pumpkins, squash, and sweet potatoes are orange because they contain the plant pigment beta-carotene, an antioxidant that scientists believe protects against heart disease, cancer, and other age-related diseases. Beta-carotene is also a precursor to vitamin A, which is necessary for good eyesight. So go on, have that slice of sweet potato pie, just without the crust and whipped cream. [To Cut Diabetes Heart Risks, Diet and Exercise May Beat Drugs]

Cranberries


Anthocyanins in cranberries give them their red color, and like beta-carotene, these chemicals have antioxidant properties. In addition to preventing cellular damage in the body, anthocyanins appear to have an anti-inflammatory effect, important since "inflammation can certainly contribute to cardiovascular disease as well as certain cancers," says Diane McKay, an antioxidant researcher at Tufts University in Boston. Resist the urge to camouflage their bitter taste with loads of sugar. Instead, says Thayer, prepare cranberries with sweeter fruits such as chopped apples or pineapple to avoid adding extra calories. Dark Chocolate


Antioxidants in cocoa are believed to improve the flexibility of blood vessels and lower blood pressure. Dark chocolate has a higher concentration of cocoa than does milk chocolate, and thus, contains more of the helpful compounds. It might also help relieve stress. Nearly an ounce and a half a day for two weeks lowered levels of stress hormones in stressed-out volunteers, a 2009 study found. Chocolate is not without calories, though, so eat in moderation.