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Holiday Desserts That Aren't Worth the Calories

Some treats are loaded with more than a day's worth of sugar and fat.


By Caroline Praderio and Tiffany Ayuda, Prevention

Not to be a total Scrooge, but packing as many healthy ingredients into holiday desserts doesn't necessarily mean you can enjoy unlimited amounts of it. Dessert, whether it's during the holidays or not, is still a treat.

"So many desserts are called 'healthy' because they have a healthy ingredient. Beans in brownies, matcha in ice cream, etc. But you have to look at the overall ingredients in a dessert—not just the title," Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It, explains. Take pecan pie, for example. This classic Thanksgiving dessert packs tons of nutrient-dense pecans, but a slice can easily load up to 30 grams of sugar—thanks in part to the hefty dose of corn syrup in the filling.


How to choose healthy holiday desserts

When it comes to choosing the healthiest desserts, the key is to use your best judgment and evaluate the overall ingredients and toppings. "You don't need a nutritionist to tell you that the cheesecake with chocolate and strawberries is going to be calorie dense," Taub-Dix says. Before you pile your plate, Taub-Dix recommends asking yourself what you're looking for. "Instead of going for that sugar cookie that's frosted with these bright colors, go for something truly unique. Something you know you can't get all year," she says. "Oftentimes, your mouth and mind will be excited to see them, but your stomach left the party half an hour ago." Look out for these red flags when choosing desserts:
  • Whipped cream
  • A top and bottom crust or pastry
  • Ice cream (aka, anything a la mode)
  • A thick, decadent filling
  • Frosting
  • Gum drops, sprinkles and other candies


The best and worst holiday desserts

Skip this: Pecan pie

Don't be fooled by the health halo of pecans: A single slice of this pie packs around 500 calories and more than 30 grams of sugar—and that's before you add whipped cream or with ice cream.


Healthy swap: Pumpkin pie

All pies are calorie dense because of their buttery crusts and sugary fillings, but if you want to enjoy a slice (and you should!), go with pumpkin. One slice has around 300 calories and about 25 grams of sugar, but it also provides ample amounts of vitamin A , which supports healthy skin, eyes, and cell growth. Check out these pumpkin recipes for more cooking inspiration this holiday season, or Taub-Dix's pumpkin bread. Taub-Dix also recommends apple pie, but choose a slice without a piece of the lattice or top crust—it's loaded with calories and fat you don't need.


Skip this: Frosted sugar cookies

How do you make a sugary, buttery treat even more of a dietary disaster? Add a layer of icing. While frosted snowmen might look cute for the 'gram, they're not cute on your waistline. These sugar bombs can pack up to 160 calories and 16 grams of sugar in one cookie. Yikes!


Healthy swap: Meringue cookies

Since they're whipped full of air, each delicate little dollop has just 5 to 15 calories. But almost all of those calories come from sugar (each cookie packs 1 to 4 grams), so be careful not to go overboard and stick to two cookies. "I recommend exercising portion control when it comes to cookies. You may want to do a small sampling of cookies and other desserts. Maybe you choose just one cookie and a sliver of cake, instead of several cookies and a chunk of cake," Taub-Dix says.


Skip this: White chocolate peppermint bark

A single square of candy cane-topped peppermint bark can have nearly 180 calories with 20 grams of sugar to boot. We know from experience that it's basically impossible to stop at just one piece. So if you must have a piece, make sure to break it in half and savor it, Taub-Dix says.


Healthy swap: Dark chocolate truffles

The average chocolate truffle has only about 60 calories and 5 grams of sugar. The darker you go, the better: Dark chocolate has less sugar and more heart-healthy flavanoid antioxidants than milk. (Or try this recipe for salted dark chocolate and hazelnut bark.) Taub-Dix says to go for dark chocolate truffles with nuts because they're more filling and nutritious.


Skip this: Gingerbread cake

A wimpy piece of gingerbread cake has at least 260 calories—though we've seen some recipes that climb all the way to 320, thanks to a hefty layer of frosting or chocolate drizzle on top.


Healthy swap: Gingerbread cookies

A plain gingerbread cookie (without gumdrops, frosting, and other adornments) is almost always a better choice, partly because of cookies' built-in portion control and because it's one of the least buttery cookie recipes out there. One cookie could have as few as 32 calories and 2 grams of sugar, while 3-inch long gingerbread men have around 115 calories and 8 grams of sugar. If the gingerbread men at your family party are much bigger than that, consider breaking one in half.


Worst: Fruit cake

In case you needed another reason to hate fruit cake: Most slices easily reach 300 calories and can contain up to 30 grams of sugar, thanks to lots of sweetened dried fruit, corn syrup and rum.


Healthy swap: Fruit cobbler

Taub-Dix likes to make this pear cobbler recipe because it has no added sugar and has all the warm flavors of the season. She uses fresh pears, but you can add apples and other fruits you like. It feature chia seeds, unsalted nuts, and a little bit of granola to give the it the hearty crunch you crave in pies and cakes. Because there isn't a crust, it's lower in calories and saturated fat.


Skip this: Fudge

This is seriously depressing: A 1-inch square of fudge has about 130 calories and 20 grams of sugar. But who's going to stop after just one tiny cube?


Healthy swap: Biscotti

A cheery holiday biscotti studded with fruit and nuts also runs about 100 calories (or less!), so you get way more bang for your caloric buck.
best and worst holiday desserts, healthiest and unhealthiest holiday desserts

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