A while back, a dietitian colleague of mine reluctantly agreed that carbohydrate restriction could improve blood glucose control and help people lose weight. Still, she wasn't a fan for several reasons, and her primary criticism was that most of our patients wouldn't be willing to stick with this way of eating long term. "What about Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays? It would just be too hard being around your favorite foods all day and watching everyone else eat them while you just ate plain turkey and salad."
In all honesty, I know several people who are happy to eat meat and leafy greens all the time, including holidays. But the majority who follow a low-carb lifestyle enjoy the wide variety of foods and flexibility this way of eating offers.
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without ______.
Here's a dilemma I often hear from readers and clients around the holidays. You've been doing great and feel fairly confident about staying on track from November through December, but there's one dish that you absolutely have to have in order to make the holiday feel like a holiday. Whether it's your mom's apple pie, your cousin's "top-secret recipe" stuffing, or your sister's sweet potato casserole, the item is invariably high in carbs. It's best to decide ahead of time how to deal with the situation, and there are basically three options, all of which can work:
1. Eat a normal-sized portion and enjoy it without guilt
2. Eat a couple of bites and fill the rest of your plate with non-carby options
3. Forego it altogether and find a new favorite to love
Celebrating with a Non-Low-Carb Family
I realize it's tough when you have family members who show their love through cooking delicious carb-rich food for you. In order to avoid hurting anyone's feelings, if you've decided on option 2 or 3 above, I'd let the person cooking the item in question know well in advance that while you love them and appreciate the time and effort they put into making the dish, it's important that you stick with your way of eating all the time, including holidays. Hopefully they'll understand because they want what's best for you, but even if they don't, you should never feel obligated to eat something in order to please someone else.
I didn't really have any issues with my family being offended about me not eating something they'd prepared, but I did get quite a bit of pushback when I decided I'd no longer be baking my gingerbread cookies for the holidays. I'm not one to pat myself on the back, but these cookies were pretty amazing, and I realize several of my friends and family members were disappointed when I stopped delivering them around the second week of December. The thought of making a low-carb version briefly occurred to me, but I didn't feel like experimenting with something people might not end up liking.
A Low-Carb Version or The Real Thing?
I'm staunchly low carb and -- aside from an occasional bite of my husband's dessert -- haven't eaten any off-plan foods since I started low-carbing in early 2011. I personally feel it's healthiest and easiest to remain low carb consistently, and I can truthfully say I never feel deprived. However, I understand that for some, being able to enjoy higher-carb food during the holidays makes it easier to stick to carbohydrate restriction long term. If you've decided to take a break from low-carbing, enjoy a small serving of your favorite dish(es) and then get right back on the low-carb wagon the next day! (Eating a large amount of carbs when you're not used to them can cause some very unpleasant symptoms, in addition to raising your blood glucose, insulin, and blood pressure). If you do want to maintain your way of eating throughout the holiday season, make sure you're prepared with plenty of delicious low-carb foods in order to avoid temptation.
Low-Carb Menu Planning for the Holidays
Turkey, goose, ham, and other meats are ideal and should form the foundation of your meal, along with greens or other very-low-carb vegetables. But it's the sides and desserts that tend to cause the most trouble! Here's a collection of low-carb versions of all your favorites created by several very talented low-carb culinary wizards I have the great privilege of knowing. There's also one from me, although I must admit to being one of the least creative low-carbers around!
Mashed "Potatoes" aka Faux-tatoes
Mashed potatoes contain about 17 grams of net carb per half cup serving but have little fiber or other nutritional benefits. Fortunately, there are several lower-carb vegetables that are ideal stand-ins for potatoes.
"Better than Potatoes" Cheesy Cauliflower Puree from I Breathe…I'm Hungry (4 grams net carb per serving)
Turnip Cauliflower Mash from Holistically Engineered (less than 7 grams net carb per serving)
Amish Turnip Bake from 24/7 Low Carb Diner (less than 4 grams net carb per serving)
The amount of carbs in stuffing varies widely because there are so many different ways of preparing it, but any with bread or corn are sure to be high. Check out the amazing low-carb options below, all with less than 5 grams net carb per serving.
Keto Primal Thanksgiving Stuffing from KetoDiet Blog (less than 4 grams net carb per serving)
Low Carb and Gluten Free Turkey Stuffing/Dressing from I Breathe…I'm Hungry (4 grams net carb per serving)
Savory Herb Turkey Stuffing from Low Carb Luxury (4.5 grams net carb per serving)
With only 4 grams of net carb per cup, green beans are an excellent side, but Campbell's Green Bean Casserole has 17 grams net carb per serving. I like keeping the carbs down when it comes to vegetables with green beans prepared simply with salt and butter, or delicious alternatives like the ones below.
Bacon and Onion Green Beans from Low Carb Layla (4.5 grams net carb per serving)
Green Bean Casserole from Peace, Love and Low Carb (8 grams net carb per serving)
Dottie's Green Bean Casserole from Linda's Low Carb Menus and Recipes (3-4 grams net carb per serving)
A half-cup serving of cooked yams or sweet potatoes contains 16 grams of net carbohydrate and is rich in phytonutrients. Depending on your personal carbohydrate goal, this could be worked into your holiday meal. However, realize that half a cup isn't very much, and this is for the plain cooked vegetable only. Candied yams have 42 grams of net carbohydrate.
The easiest way to make yams or sweet potatoes without adding carbs is to top them with butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and optional sugar substitute of choice after boiling or baking.
For fancier desserts made with sweet potatoes and/or healthy lower-carb substitute vegetables, check out these recipes:
Candied "Yams" with Marshmallows from KetoDiet Blog (5 grams net carb per serving)
Sweet Potato Casserole from Low Carb Luxury (6.5 grams net carb per serving)
Maple Glazed Delicata Rings from 24/7 Diner (8 grams per serving based on 4 servings)
Fresh cranberries are actually pretty low in carbohydrates at around 4 grams of net carb per half cup. However, they're extremely bitter and require a lot of sweetening for most palates. A quarter-cup serving of canned cranberry sauce has 25 grams of net carb -- pretty high for a small portion. Here are a few sugar-free versions that can fit into just about everyone's carb budget.
Cranberries from Linda's Low-Carb Menus and Recipes (5 grams net carb per serving, if using liquid sweetener)
Jellied Cranberry Sauce from Low Carb Luxury (3.5 grams net carb per serving)
Low Carb Orange Cranberry Sauce from Holistically Engineered (3.5 grams net carb per serving)
Easy low-carb holiday drinks include Pumpkin or Candy Cane tea with 1-2 Tablespoons heavy cream or half and half, sweetened with sugar substitute of choice. For more creative ideas, see the links below.
Raspberry Truffle Mochas from All Day I Dream About Food (4 grams net carb per serving)
Healthy Nutella Hot Chocolate from Dessert with Benefits (1 gram net carb per serving)
Cranberry Frozen Frappuccino from Your Lighter Side (2 grams net carb per serving)
Eggnog and Cocktails
Although hard alcohol doesn't contain any carbs, the sweet mixers that often accompany it definitely do. Holiday drinks can be particularly high in carbs; for example, traditional eggnog has 34 grams of carb in an 8-ounce serving. It's still possible to enjoy a festive and tasty low-carb drink, though!
Low Carb Eggnog from Fluffy Chix Cook (2 grams net carb per seving)
Pumpkin Pie Martini from All Day I Dream About Food (1.5 grams net carb per serving)
Refreshing Daiquiri from KetoDiet Blog (less than 4 grams net carb per serving)
With a carbohydrate-restricted lifestyle, snacking generally isn't necessary. But if you end up skipping meals because you're too busy and find yourself hungry mid-afternoon when everyone else is munching on chips or pretzels, it's good to have something on-plan available to dig into if needed.
Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers from Holistically Engineered (3 grams net carb per serving)
Low Carb Cinnamon Almonds from Low Carb Dietitian (3 grams net carb per serving)
Kickin' Orange Marinated Olive Recipe from DJ Foodie (less than 1 gram net carb per serving)
Holiday Pies and Desserts
Traditional desserts are obviously high in carbs, but be careful with "sugar-free" and "no-sugar-added" pies and cakes as well. For instance, Marie Callender's No-Sugar-Added Apple Pie contains 46 grams net carb per slice.
For a delicious low-carb alternative, consider making one of the following desserts instead.
Crustless Low Carb Pumpkin Pie from Low Carb, So Simple (just over 4 grams net carb per serving based on 8 servings per pie)
Low-Carb Pumpkin Cheesecake Mousse from Sugar-Free Mom (less than 3 grams net carb per serving)
Zucchini "Apple" Pie from KetoDiet Blog (6 grams net carb per serving)
Low Carb Pecan Pie from Holistically Engineered (just over 5 grams net carb per serving)
Mincemeat Tarts with Hard Sauce from All Day I Dream About Food (3 grams net carb per serving)
Fudge and truffles seem to be everywhere the entire month of December! Good thing those talented low-carb bloggers have created sugar-free versions that rival the standard offerings.
Pecan Pie Truffles from All Day I Dream About Food (2.5 grams net carb per truffle)
Sugar-Free Maple Nut Fudge from Maria Mind Body Health (less than 1 gram net carb apiece)
Coconut Almond Mocha Fudge from Beauty and the Foodie (2 grams net carb for low carb version)
The aroma of freshly baked cookies makes them nearly impossible to resist, and these low-carb treats are no exception.
Walnut Cardomom Snowballs from All Day I Dream About Food (1.5 grams net carb per cookie)
Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies from Low Carb Yum (just over 1 gram net carb per cookie)
Low-Carb Classic Gingerbread Men from All Day I Dream About Food (2 grams net carb per cookie)
That last one sounds especially intriguing, from my own perspective! Based on the reviews in the comments section, I'm definitely going to try making those gingerbread men this year. With a little luck, they'll turn out to be everyone's new healthy favorite.
Bottom Line: Enjoy!
Holiday eating should be pleasurable when following a low-carb lifestyle. Regardless of whether you choose to eat small amounts of traditional recipes, low-carb versions of the classics, or just stick to meat and vegetables, enjoy your celebrations! I wish you and your family safe, happy, and healthy holidays.
Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE