Grandfather with family carving a turkey at a Thanksgiving table

8 Healthy Food Swaps for the Holidays

What if you could enjoy all the holiday flavors you love, without worrying about adding excessive calories or feeding inflammation in your body?

This holiday season, consider nutrient-dense food options that give your body what it needs. We have the opportunity to nourish our body every time we eat, so use each opportunity wisely!

Healthier swaps for holiday foods

Woman holding a holiday turkey which may be a healthier food choice

A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats promotes a healthy inflammatory response, so keep this in mind when choosing your holiday menu. You should also avoid or limit certain foods, such as fried or processed foods, and stay away from too much added sugar.

When your family gathers around the table, instead of ham, consider opting for lean pork loin or turkey. Ham is higher in saturated fat (the not-so-healthy kind of fat) and is usually caramelized with sugar for Christmas. Sugar molecules, in excess quantity or over long periods of time, wreak havoc on human tissues, inducing inflammation in blood vessels, nerves, liver and other vital tissues.1

In addition to being cooked without sugar, pork tenderloin and loin chop are leaner cuts of pork, meaning less fat, compared to ham. The same goes for turkey.

Since these cuts are leaner, cook them carefully to be sure they don't become dry. You can also skip the heavy gravy and use a broth to cut down on saturated fat.

Serve up side dishes without the inflammation

mother and daughter cooking healthy meal

Since sugar is a major culprit in inflammation, opt for homemade cranberry sauce instead of the canned varieties with added sugar. Cranberry is naturally sweet, and with some fresh orange slices tossed in for tartness, you won't even need to add much sugar to offer the perfect accompaniment to your main dish.

Instead of mashed potatoes from a box—which likely contain excessive salt and other additives—try homemade smashed potatoes with herbs. Using sweet potatoes or purple potatoes offers an additional nutritional boost by providing antioxidants, known for their powerful anti-inflammatory effects.2

Notice we said "smash" instead of "mash." That's because this technique uses the skin of the potato, offering the benefit of more fiber and an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium.3

Another healthy option is to skip potatoes altogether and instead use cauliflower, a non-starchy, cruciferous vegetable that helps modulate inflammation and reduce disease risk.4 Feel free to serve yourself a hefty scoop!

On Hanukkah, instead of traditional fried latkes, try a baked or air-fried variation to skip all the added fat. Get creative and grate some carrots and zucchini into the mix to infuse those potato pancakes with vitamin A.

Sweeten the deal with anti-inflammatory holiday desserts

Pre baked gingerbread cookies and a rolling pin

After your meal, consider swapping your sugar cookies for some nutritiously delicious oat cookies with walnuts and warm spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg.

Walnuts are a "brain food" with a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids that may help reduce inflammation.5 Other nuts, such as pecans and pistachios, are also good sources of antioxidants.6 So oat cookies with nuts would have less sugar and more fiber, protein and healthy fat than sugar cookies. Can I get a hallelujah?

For healthier, tasty gingerbread cookies, try using some fresh ginger or switch to ginger snaps, which tend to be smaller. Ginger is a good choice for the holidays, because it may help ease inflammation and is wonderful for digestion.7 FYI: Ginger roots are common ingredients on some supplements for bloating. Just make sure you are not counteracting its benefits with too much sugar per serving.

As for fruit cake – wait, does anyone actually eat that stuff? Just kidding! – it is usually packed with sugary dried fruit and dyed with unnatural coloring. Try a lower-calorie angel cake with fresh fruit instead.

Another holiday staple, candy canes, are pretty much sticks of sugar. Why not enjoy a nice hot cup of peppermint tea instead? If you must have candy canes, chop them up finely and make dark chocolate peppermint bark. Dark chocolate has antioxidants and adds wonderful flavor to holiday treats!

Healthy food choices

Other green-light foods that are also festive include pumpkin, chestnuts, pears, Brussels sprouts and pomegranate. Add them to your table in place of less healthy dishes and have a happy holiday!


Calorie Dense Foods

Nutrient-Dense Alternatives

Mashed Potatoes

Smashed Sweet Potatoes, Purple Potatoes or Mashed Cauliflower


Lean Pork Loin or Turkey

Canned Cranberry Sauce

Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Sugar Cookies

Oat Cookies with Nuts and Spices

Fried Potato Pancakes (Latkes)

Baked Potato, Carrot and Zucchini Pancakes

Fruit Cake

Angel Food Cake with Fresh Fruit

Gingerbread Men Cookies

Ginger Snaps

Candy Canes

Peppermint Tea, Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark

About the Author: Holli Ryan is a food & nutrition expert, registered & licensed dietitian-nutritionist, health & wellness writer, blogger, and social media specialist. She graduated from Florida International University and is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her free time she enjoys photography, travel, cooking, art, music, and nature.


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  2. J Med Food. 2014;17(7):733-41.
  4. J Med Food. 2019;22(2):121-126.
  5. Nutrients. 2020;12(2)
  6. Nutrients. 2017;9(12)
  7. Food Chem Toxicol. 2008;46(2):409-20.