I don’t know about you, but the holidays can be a very depressing time if you are trying to stay on your healthy diet, while watching your loved ones consume all the foods you can’t. For some of us, avoiding gluten, dairy and sugar is an elective choice to stay healthy, occasionally punctuated by splurges that don’t seem to do us any noticeable harm. For some unfortunate others, falling off our diet can lead to a myriad of symptoms that not only make us miserable, but can take several weeks to recover from. A splurge just isn’t worth it.
As someone who falls into the latter category, I have had to creatively find ways to pacify my inner child tantrums while watching someone else eat the cookies, cakes and candy, and sip on the alcoholic beverages that would put me in urgent care. Whether you are someone who can indulge here and there (but would rather not this year), or you are someone who just can't, the good news is that there are real options that enable you to eat your yummy goodies too this year without paying a price. The bad news is, you’ll probably have to spend some extra time in your kitchen making it happen!
Here are some guidelines for those seeking to substitute ingredients that cause symptoms, with ingredients that are agreeable to most.
Sugar. Not many of us can easily kick that sweet tooth. I’ve noticed many “healthy” dessert recipes will substitute white or brown sugar with honey, agave, coconut sugar, dates or date sugar, maple syrup, molasses and other natural sweeteners. In very small amounts this is fine, but let’s face it: most desserts call for sweeteners in cups not tablespoons. And all of these sweeteners significantly spike blood sugar--not good for those of us with autoimmune illness, diabetes, or those of us seriously attempting to lose some weight. I have found the most effective combination sugar substitute for desserts such as cookies, cakes and pies to be stevia and erythritol (please buy non-GMO, as it is made from corn). These two sweeteners have zero calories, cause little to no side effects, and do not spike sugar levels at all. Erythritol can be substituted for white sugar 1:1. When combined with stevia drops, it’s possible to cut the amount of erythritol in half or even fourths. When it comes to beverages or smoothies, usually stevia alone is fine. I like the SweetLeaf stevia brand because it comes in a variety of fun Christmas-y flavors, including chocolate, peppermint, pumpkin spice, cinnamon, hazelnut, and vanilla creme. You’ll have to experiment with the right amount of drops to achieve desired sweetness.
Dairy. For me, this is the hardest one to give up. Let’s face it: there are really no satisfying replacements for cheese. No matter how hard Daiya cheese tries, peameal and tapioca does not equal cheese! So for those of you who can cheat a little without payback, go ahead. It’s Christmas. For those of you who can’t, my condolences. When it comes to cream, however, I have found an ideal substitute to be coconut milk. A word of caution: almost all canned coconut milk is thickened with guar gum, known to irritate those who are highly sensitive to gluten. I like Native Forest organic and unsweetened coconut milk the best, and they have now added a coconut milk “Simple” without the guar gum. Natural Value also carries an organic coconut milk without the guar gum.
Gluten/Grains. Got to have flour for those pies, cakes and cookies, right? For many, going gluten-free and simply avoiding wheat flour by itself can be a challenge. These days, however, there are many gluten-free flour substitutes out there, ranging from rice and potato starch-based flours, to chickpea flour-based. A warning about most gluten-free products and flours: they are almost always high in refined grains and starches and will spike blood sugar as dramatically as pure white sugar. If you are prediabetic, diabetic, or have inflammatory health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis, then these products are going to be actively working against you.
A growing number of people are following a grain-free diet, and for those folks, I recommend substituting blanched almond flour or coconut flour for regular flour in recipes. It can get a bit tricky to figure out substitution ratios, as they are not 1:1, so I would recommend searching for recipes online at paleo sites (my top recommendations below).
Alcohol. Most people can handle a small amount of wine or a cocktail here and there, but those interested in preserving their health will want to minimize the amount of alcohol they drink during the holidays. Those with gluten sensitivities will want to avoid beer altogether, or make sure they have access to the growing varieties of gluten-free beer. Individuals with blood sugar abnormalities, autoimmunity, digestive ailments or other more complicated health issues will want to either steer clear of alcohol altogether, or drink non-grain based hard liquor such as potato vodka or tequila on the rocks and limit to one or two drinks at the most. You can make a pretty mean margarita with fresh lime juice and stevia (recipe below). Alternatively, unsweetened cranberry juice with sparkling water, ice, stevia and a mint garnish is a cheerful non alcoholic drink that will make you feel like you are joining in the holiday fun.
Chocolate. I mention chocolate because Lily’s is a new brand of sugar-free chocolate now available at most health food stores. Lily’s uses erythritol, stevia and inulin in place of sugar, and offers chocolate bars, chocolate chips and baking chocolate that are really yummy.
In conclusion: you can have your cake (or pie...or nog) and eat/drink it too! To prove my point, here are five links (below) to some of my favorite holiday recipes, that I fully intend to indulge in this year! Elena’s Pantry and Against all Grain are two of my favorite recipe blog sites, and are fun to browse around in. And remember, if you are like me and simply cannot afford to “cheat” this year, plan ahead! Make some “substitute” cookies and bring them along to your office Christmas party, or bring your nog and pie alternatives to your family Christmas dinner, and you’ll kiss those holiday food blues goodbye.
Substitute erythritol and/or stevia for the coconut sugar.
This recipe does call for ½ cup honey. This amount can be cut in half with the addition of some pumpkin spice stevia drops or erythritol.
OK, these are valentine cookies. But change the frosting color and voila! Christmas. Substitute the honey in the dry ingredients with erythritol, and half the honey in the frosting by adding cinnamon or hazel stevia drops.
Hold the fresh squeezed orange juice to reduce sugar further.
Cut the molasses amount in half using stevia drops.
And a few more yummy holiday recipes to keep your mouth watering and your inner kid happy. Just remember to replace natural sweeteners used with my suggestions above if you are trying to keep the sugars low or absent.
May everyone have a safe, happy, healthy and delicious holiday!