Tips for Healthier Holiday Baking
I absolutely love baking around the holidays! Growing up, it was always a time when my mom, my sister, and I were together in the kitchen making cookies, candies, and other seasonal goodies. We have a long list of our favorite holiday recipes and still to this day try to bake as many as possible when we have time together around the holidays.
While I am very health conscious and always want to have healthier versions of sweets to avoid that dreaded sugar hangover, one thing is very important to me - if I am having a dessert I want it to taste like a decadent, rich dessert and not taste “healthy.” I want something that is truly satisfying!
So I wanted to share with you some of my favorite hacks to help make your sweets healthier, but still indulgently delicious ;) I promise, even the pickiest eaters will love these!
I am in no way opposed to eating carbs or grains, but for baking I tend to gravitate towards lower carb flour replacements. Like the coconut flour I used for these Samoa Shortbread Bars. Why? When baking something sweet it already has carbs from the sugars used, so there is no sense in adding more if they are not needed.
Carbs and sugars in moderate amounts are fine, but when we have large amounts at once, it creates a higher blood sugar response and our body has to produce more insulin to shuttle these sugars into our cells. Long term this leads to insulin resistance and diabetes, and short term it leads to poor energy, higher stress levels, and increased weight gain and fat storage, especially around our waist :(
So if we can keep our holiday treats a little more moderate in carbs by choosing lower carb flours, it can definitely help keep us feeling and looking a little better!
Some of my favorite lower carb flour replacements to use are:
- Almond Flour - high in protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Coconut Flour - high in healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Protein Powders - high in protein (Whey, Collagen, Rice, Etc)
You can also find a lot of great recipes out there that are flourless! When I am searching for healthier recipes I tend to use the terms “paleo,” “flourless,” or “keto” because these will typically be lower carb recipes. You can also experiment using some of these options as replacements for regular flour in your favorite family recipes ;)
If you want to use a more traditional carb based flour, consider using one with higher nutrient content such as oat flour or quinoa flour.
While no sugars are good for us in high amounts, choosing natural, unrefined sugars is a much better option than using the typical processed sugars. Refined sugars such as white and brown sugar or corn syrup are completely stripped of any nutrients, are high in fructose which is toxic to our body, and have a high glycemic response.
Unrefined sugars on the other hand do still contain some beneficial properties and nutrients, and typically have a better response on our body.
Some good options are:
- Dates - lower glycemic effect, contains fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Raw Honey - lower glycemic effect, high in enzymes and antioxidants, contains vitamins & minerals
- Coconut Sugar or Nectar - lower glycemic effect, lower fructose, contains vitamins & minerals
- Pure Dark Maple Syrup - lower glycemic effect, lower fructose, high in antioxidants, contains vitamins & minerals
- Stevia - no glycemic effect, zero calories or sugar, contains antioxidants, vitamins, & minerals
- Monk Fruit Extract - no glycemic effect, zero calories or sugar, contains antioxidants, vitamins, & minerals
I like to use the zero sugar options (stevia or monk fruit) as much as possible but I don't always feel they taste right depending on the recipes. Although I do love stevia in my almond butter ;) I usually have better success doing a mix of some real sugar with some stevia or monk fruit to help reduce the total sugar content, rather than exclusively sweetening with them.
****Please note, the granulated baking mixes made with stevia or monk fruit are mainly just filler ingredients such as erythritol, dextrose, maltodextrin, inulin, etc with a very small amount of the actual stevia or monk fruit extract. I recommend avoiding these and using a pure powder or liquid extract instead.
As far as real sugar, my favorites are coconut sugar and maple syrup. These both have a lower glycemic response and lower fructose content compared to other sugars, plus they contain a lot of beneficial micronutrients in their natural, unrefined form. Coconut Sugar has a lower glycemic effect compared to maple syrup, but to me it is not as sweet so I feel I have to use more of it to achieve the same effect, which makes it a wash in my book. Raw honey and dates are great too but they do contain more fructose and more total sugars compared to maple syrup and coconut sugar.
There are some alternative sweeteners I would encourage you to avoid. I know it is tempting to go with the no sugar, no calorie options, but just because they are calorie free does not mean they are good for your body! Definitely avoid the artificial sweeteners such as splenda (sucralose), aspartame, and acesulfume potassium. Avoid sugar alcohols such as erythritol and xylitol unless they specify that they are NON GMO, and even then they can upset your digestive system.
Agave is another sweetener that gained a lot of popularity a few years ago, but it is one of the worst things you can use! It is lower glycemic, yes, but that is only because it has an extremely high fructose content (much higher than even high fructose corn syrup!) which is very toxic to our body. It is also highly processed.
I'm a big fan of keeping the full fat in desserts. It provides great flavor and richness, makes you fuller, and also blunts your blood sugar response by slowing your digestion of the sugars in your treats. It also helps you need to use less sugar in your recipes because of the flavor it adds. But you do want to make sure you are using healthy types of fats!
Some of the best ones are:
- Avocado - high in monounsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Nut Butters (especially almond butter ;) - high in monounsaturated fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Coconut Oil, Milk, or Cream - high in medium chain saturated fatty acids
- MCT Oil - concentrated source of medium chain saturated fatty acids
- Grass Fed Butter or Ghee - high in short chain saturated fatty acids, contains CLA, omega 3s, and vitamin A
Avocado and nut butters are a great source of monounsaturated fats as well as fiber and proteins to enhance the nutrient content of your recipes, plus they add extra creaminess! I like to use almond butter for about half of the oil content along with coconut oil or other fats in the recipes I create. Coconut fats are rich in healthy medium chain saturated fatty acids, while grass fed butter or ghee is rich in short chain saturated fatty acids plus some omega 3s and CLA. Both have a pretty neutral flavor (in my opinion) and are pretty versatile in dessert recipes.
Unhealthy fats to avoid baking with are Canola Oil, Palm Oil, Margarine, Crisco, Vegetable Oil, Peanut Oil, and any Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated Oils. These oils are highly processed and inflammatory to our bodies.