By Elaine Gordon
Special to the Washington Post
This time of year, your calendar is likely to be full of holiday parties, office gatherings, cookie exchanges and family meals.
The common theme of any of these events is delicious desserts, which are usually loaded with added sugars and unhealthy fats.
Take control this holiday season, and experiment with these healthful baking tips to benefit yourself and your loved ones.
The U.S. Agriculture Department labels solid fats and added sugars as empty calories, and recommends that these make up no more than 15 percent of your diet. However, most Americans consume about 35 percent of their calories from these empty calorie sources.
What are solid fats?
Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature (i.e. butter and shortening). Most are high in saturated fats or trans fats, which tend to raise "bad" LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease.
What are added sugars?
According to the USDA, added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. This includes white granulated sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, honey and maple syrup. This does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk and fruits.
So, the overall goal for healthful baking is to reduce the empty calories from added sugars and solid fats and replace them with more healthful ingredients. Besides, most recipes call for more sugar and fat than are actually needed for decadent flavor. To preserve the flavor of your recipes, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends reducing the sugar and fat by 25 percent to 33 percent.
Healthful baking tips
1. When reducing sugar in your recipes, be sure to add spices for flavor. Try cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, vanilla bean or pumpkin pie spice.
2. Instead of solid fats such as butter and shortening, go for vegetable oils such as canola oil for less saturated and trans fat. Even better, unsweetened applesauce can replace half the oil in your recipe to help cut down on overall fat. The applesauce also adds natural sweetness and fiber. Canned pumpkin or sweet potato puree can also be used as a substitute for these solid fats while also offering health benefits from vitamins A and C.
3. Swap frosting for fruit slices or pureed fruit — nature's candy!
4. Add unsweetened dried fruits such as raisins for added fiber and natural sweetness.
5. Add heart-healthy raw, unsalted nut pieces for added crunch and flavor. Try incorporating nut butters into your recipes for added protein.
6. Replace one whole egg with two egg whites to reduce cholesterol. Or, you can skip eggs altogether and combine 1 tablespoon of heart-healthy ground flaxseed with 3 tablespoons of water.
7. Try using evaporated skim milk instead of heavy cream.
8. Use whole-grain flours instead of refined white flours for additional fiber and nutrients.
9. Consider using agave nectar instead of sugar. Agave syrup has fewer calories but is also sweeter, so you only need half to three-quarters as much.
10. Use dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, which offers flavonoids, a healthy antioxidant. I recommend using mini chips, which allow you to use less overall chocolate but still provide a bit of flavor in each bite. Unsweetened cocoa powder is great for adding chocolate flavor without a lot of calories or fat: 1 tablespoon contains approximately 15 calories and 1.5 grams of fat (and zero cholesterol or sugar).
Healthful baking rule of thumb
When it comes to lightening up your recipes, start by making small changes and never change a major ingredient. If you have a family recipe that is filled with special meaning, then you might not want to do anything too radical. Evaluate each recipe on a case-by-case basis and have fun experimenting with these more healthful options.
And, when the baking is done, pay attention to the portion size of the desserts you consume: No food is a "bad food" when enjoyed in moderation. Portion size is particularly important when it comes to high-calorie foods such as cakes, brownies, tarts, cupcakes, cookies and pies. Set yourself up for success by taking a smaller piece of pie or one less cookie. You can still savor every bite and feel just as satisfied.
Gordon, a master of public health professional and a master certified health education specialist, is creator of the healthy recipe site EatingbyElaine.com.