Baylor College of Medicine

Thanksgiving food
Thanksgiving feast on the table featuring turkey, mashed potatoes and rolls.

Holiday ingredient substitutions

Homa Shalchi


Houston, TX -

The holidays often involve overindulging, and while the occasional decadent meal is enjoyable, some people may prefer to eat a healthier version of their favorite holiday treat. A Baylor College of Medicine dietitian provides recipe substitutions for some favorite holiday meals. 

“The holidays are the time to enjoy your favorite meals and desserts, so you shouldn’t feel like you have to replace those with other foods,” said Courtney Cary, senior registered dietitian in the Department of Medicine – Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Baylor. “It’s important to let yourself have what you enjoy. There are some easy substitutions available for those who want them, though.” 


Desserts that call for a lot of butter, solid fat or even coconut oil can be substituted with any liquid oil, such as vegetable oil or canola oil. This decreases the saturated fat content of the dessert.

“Even if something calls for coconut oil, swapping it with butter is better because coconut oil has a higher concentration of saturated fat than butter,” Cary said. “Also, adding things like healthy fats, protein and fiber to desserts really help with the reaction on your blood sugar,” she said. 

Replacing white flour with whole wheat flour increases the fiber content of the dessert, mitigating the impact it will have on your blood sugar. If you bake a cake or pie with white flour, blood sugar rises then goes straight down. If you use wheat flour and add some nuts to your dessert, your blood sugar still increases, but falls much slower. 

Casserole/creamed vegetables

Dishes like green bean casserole or creamed spinach often include heavy cream. Instead of using heavy cream, Cary suggests cooking with fat free half and half, which is still creamy but has little saturated fat. If you take out the solid fat and replace it with butter or oil, you can make the dish more heart healthy by minimizing the saturated fats. You also can use low-fat or part-skim cheese to decrease the saturated fat. 

“Eating decadent and rich food one day out of the year won’t kill you, but that high concentration of saturated fat over multiple days from leftovers can have an impact,” Cary said. 

Cranberry sauce

Making your own cranberry sauce as opposed to using store-bought cans, even if you make it with fresh cranberries and add a whole cup of sugar, it will be less detrimental to your blood sugar than high fructose corn syrup in canned cranberry sauce. Cary suggests adding nuts to it to mitigate the reaction on the blood sugar.

“Adding nuts won’t give you that hypoglycemia that you get after having big meals or large amounts of sugar,” she said. 

Reactive hypoglycemia can happen when eating concentrated sugar or sweets (without the presence of fat, fiber or protein), such as canned cranberry sauce and high concentrations of starchy foods in one sitting. These fluctuations can cause stress on the body and over time, may contribute to an increased A1C level. This is also known as the “Thanksgiving crash” people feel after the big, decadent meal.

Mashed potatoes

Creamy mashed potatoes typically include butter and heavy cream, but you can use butter and replace the cream with skim milk to lessen the saturated fat content. 


Alcohol consumption can affect blood sugar and cause reflux. Hard liquors have the lowest effect on blood sugar and acid reflux, so mixing hard liquor with a sugar-free mixer is a good option if you want to have an alcoholic beverage. 

Hard liquors also are less harmful to the blood sugar when consumed with other decadent foods compared to something like a bottle of wine. Wine and beer contain sugar, so they stimulate a gastric secretion of acid more than hard liquors. If you experience reflux and plan to eat a large meal, avoid drinks with high sugar concentrations such as beer or wine because it will stimulate the response in your stomach to increase acid production. 

Cary stresses that alcohol should be consumed in moderation.


Always put vegetables on your plate, even if they are creamed or in casserole form. Including the fiber from vegetables will help prevent the post-Thanksgiving meal fatigue. The fiber will help keep your blood sugar from dramatically increasing and then decreasing.  

Cary explains how to balance your Thanksgiving meal here. She also discusses the importance of enjoying holiday meals without restricting yourself here.

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