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The holiday season is the time to dig into all of your favorite cookies, pies, cakes, rolls, and all other forms of sweet treats (or savory snacks). But after biting into a few too many gingerbread people or enjoying a couple candy canes, all that sugar can leave you feeling pretty sluggish – and, overall, worse for the wear.
Instead of skipping out on cookies, pies, and all of those sweetened coffees you love during the holiday season, make your baked goods – and even your home-cooked meals – lower in sugar. With the following expert tips from nutritionists and registered dietitians, you can reduce your overall sugar intake without feeling like you’re giving anything up.
1. Don’t Cut Out All Sugar – Just Cut Back
One easy way to reduce the amount of sugar you’re consuming and limit its impact on your overall nutrition? Cut back on how much you’re working with in the kitchen.
As Carmel Hagen, Founder and CEO of Supernatural, explains, “Eating less of an extremely good thing is better than eating more of a mediocre thing. That’s where I stand on all food groups, not just sweet stuff… Overindulgence, particularly regular overindulgence, can be labeled that way, but no food itself is a villain.”
Sugar, and the sugar found in your favorite holiday treats, isn’t necessarily a bad ingredient to consume. The key is to reduce, or balance, your intake. And it’s easy to accomplish that when you’re baking or cooking at home. For example, Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, and author of Eat Your Vitamins, suggests simply cutting back on how much you use in every recipe: “Sugar is a key element for flavor and texture in baked goods. We can usually reduce the amount of sugar by cutting the quantity down by ¼ without sacrificing much of the flavor or mouthfeel.”
How do you know how much is enough? “If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, we can use ¾ cup instead, and then evaluate and try cutting back to ⅔ and ½ the next time you make the dish,” Davis suggests. “You may not notice a big difference, but the healthfulness will be much improved.”
2. Swap Refined Sugar for Other Alternatives
Refined white sugar isn’t your only option when it comes to making food taste sweet (and no, the alternative isn’t brown sugar!) There’s actually a surprisingly long list of other sugar varieties – and many offer better nutritional profiles than their white counterpart.
One variety that nutritionists and bakers alike love? Coconut sugar. “I love baking with coconut sugar as a replacement for regular sugar. Coconut sugar is simple to use, easy on blood sugar thanks to a prebiotic fiber called inulin, and super delicious with nuanced caramelly notes,” says Hagen. “I also appreciate that, unlike honey or maple syrup, baking with coconut sugar never requires recipe modifications.”
Serena Poon, celebrity chef, nutritionist, and founder of Just Add Water and Culinary Alchemy, agrees: “Coconut sugar does behave like sugar in the body, but it also contains more nutrients, is a bit lower on the glycemic index and is less processed than refined sugar, making it a slightly better option as long as it’s used in moderation.”
And, as Poon points out, coconut sugar isn’t your only option if you’re looking for a simple swap. “There are many ways to make healthy swaps while maintaining flavor and texture and for me it
depends on the recipe,” she explains. “With my clients, I love shifting a diet from traditional desserts to more whole foods and fruit-based dishes that can satisfy a sweet craving while delivering fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants.”
“When I bake or make other desserts, I’ll either swap out for a baking sugar alternative blend, monk fruit, stevia, or coconut sugar. There are a number of baking sugar alternatives that are made from natural sugar-free options such as monk fruit or stevia,” Poon says. “These alternatives provide sweetness to your recipe, but are calorie-free (or very low in calories) and low on the glycemic index, so they won’t spike your blood sugar in the same way as refined sugar.”
3. Try a Half Sugar, Half Substitute Blend
Still want to keep some refined sugar in your holiday goodies? You don’t have to go all in on an alternative. According to Davis, you can try a 50:50 ratio – half granulated sugar, half sugar substitute.
If you’re going this route, she suggests giving allulose a try: “Allulose is a great 1:1 alternative to granulated sugar. I love Whole Earth Allulose Baking Blend, [an] allulose and erythritol baking blend which you can use just like sugar, but it has almost no impact on actual blood sugar levels. I often use half of this blend and half regular sugar to drastically cut down on the sugar content in a baked recipe.”
4. Use Warming Spices to Increase Sweetness Naturally
Holiday foods are filled with the spices of winter like cinnamon and nutmeg, which are richly fragrant and wonderfully warming. But did you know that leaning into these “spicy” flavor-enhancing ingredients can actually mimic the sweetness of sugar?
“Adding different warming spices like cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg will enhance the flavor of baked goods without sacrificing the taste,” Davis points out.
Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, Conn. and owner of Plant Based with Amy, agrees: “I love baking with naturally sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as vanilla extract, vanilla bean, and unsweetened cocoa powder. When you use these ingredients, such as in a cinnamon muffin recipe, you’re able to reduce the amount of added sugar that you need to use.”
Don’t overlook other natural ingredients, either. “Fruit is another great addition to recipes for natural sweetness and texture, especially berries or almost any kind of seasonal fruit. Apples, persimmons and pomegranates are my favorite fall/winter ones,” Davis suggests.
5. Use Sugar as a Finishing Touch Instead of a Core Ingredient
Lastly, while it’s common to rely heavily on sugar when baking (and, even if you don’t realize it, while cooking), you can reduce it by simply changing the way you approach this sweet ingredient. Sugar is common and in just about every pantry – but who says you need cup after cup of sugar for a sweet, indulgent final dish?
As Hagen explains, “We actually become more sensitive to sweeteners when we use less (just think of how impossibly sweet soda tastes after a stretch of going without, and using sugar in this style – more like a finishing salt vs a core component – can be both effective and incredibly satisfying in baked goods.”
Treating sugar as a sweetness-enhancing final touch (like a sprinkle of salt over your stovetop dinner recipe) can enhance holiday foods without all those unwanted sugar drawbacks.
“It also allows you to play with texture, which is another critical element to consider for anything coming out of your oven,” Hagen notes. “I like keeping sparkling and Swedish Pearl sugars in my pantry, and of course, Supernatural sprinkles – they all add that little kiss of sweetness and a lovely crunch to the tops of healthier scones, muffins, or biscuits.”
Speaking of finishing salt, Gorin also suggests giving salt itself a try! “Yes, this might sound like strange advice but salt brings out the sweetness in already sweet foods,” she explains. “So, when you make a recipe with a little salt, such as salted chocolate chip cookies, you can reduce how much added sugar you need to use.”