• Picture: THINKSTOCK

  • Mayuri Bhawan mayuri@nutritionalsolutions.co.za

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THE festive season is here, and one of the first signs you may notice is the wide range of traditional dessert treats that fill food store shelves. As delicious as these are, when eaten in excess (which happens very easily when you let down your guard), you pay for them in weight gain.

Fortunately, with a few small adjustments, you can still have the satisfaction of enjoying sweet treats with a healthy twist, and prevent post holiday-season weight gain.

Here’s a look at the sweet truth of what goes into the bites of holiday delights:

Baker’s friends

Fat is essential for health, but like many people, you are likely to eat too much of the wrong types of fat in baked treats at this time of year.

Christmas, Chanukah and other holiday treats are often loaded with saturated fats — such as butter, full-cream milk, cream, and certain plant fats such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and coconut.

Common treats you enjoy in summer are the oh-so-creamy ice-creams, decadent chocolates, puddings, fruit mince pies, shortbread biscuits, fruit cakes and preserved fruit. These are sinfully delicious, but high in saturated fat, and help to raise levels of the bad cholesterol in your body.

Here is a nutritional analysis of the high fat/sugar and consequent energy values of favourite desserts:

*Fruit mince pie (per serving 40g)

Energy: 602kJ

Protein: 2.4g

Total fat: 1.4g

Carbohydrates: 29.6g

Sugar: 12.2g

*Fruit cake slice (per serving 75g)

Energy: 812kJ

Protein: 3.1g

Total Fat: 2.7g

Carbohydrates: 38g

Sugar: 32.2g

*Shortbread biscuit (per 40g serving, two biscuits)

Energy: 828kJ

Protein: 2.4g

Total fat: 9g

Carbohydrates: 26g

Sugar: 7.4g

Most Christmas treats contain vegetable shortening made from vegetable oils, and this is 100% fat. To make this fat solid at room temperature, these oils have to be hydrogenated. This is a chemical heating process that changes unsaturated fats to saturated fatty acids. This gives it the baking qualities necessary for many recipes, as well as prolonging its shelf life.

If you want to bake a healthy version of the traditional Christmas cake, then replace the butter with unsaturated fats such as heart-healthy canola oil, "lite" margarine or olive-oil margarine.

Another healthy source of fat to include is nuts, for example, pecan nuts, macadamias, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios and peanuts. They are all good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs for short). MUFAs have cardio-protective benefits and are therefore a more beneficial choice. Although nuts and oils are a healthy choice, they are high in fat and calorie dense, and should be enjoyed in moderation.

Milling away

Most dessert recipes use white flour as a main ingredient. It is a refined grain that is quickly digested into simple sugars and absorbed into your bloodstream, causing spikes in your blood sugar levels. This can leave you feeling drained of energy, and can result in fluctuations in mood and emotions and an increase in appetite. Therefore, limit the use of refined (white flour), high-glycaemic index (GI) starches, such as cakes, biscuits, muffins, croissants and tarts.

For a healthier option, bake your own treats by using oats, oat bran, or whole-wheat flours in fruit breads and Christmas cake (see recipe below).

These will help to increase the fibre and consequently lower the GI content of your dessert, which will keep you feeling fuller for longer, and prevent you from feeling a need for that extra bite.

Oh sweetness!

Sugar is the main component of most treats; it provides a source of energy, but has no nutrient value. Consuming copious amounts of these sugary treats this holiday season can wreak havoc on your waistline. High sugar intake increases blood glucose levels, which will lead to higher insulin levels. This in turn can affect mood and energy levels, causing sugar cravings and an increase in appetite and fat storage.

To prevent that, use healthier alternatives that include natural sugar substitutes, warm spices or fresh fruits.

Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, anise, almond and vanilla essence, work particularly well with desserts, and give the illusion of sweetness without adding any calories.

Tutee fruity

The best source for dessert is fruit, as it is laden with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fruits naturally contain fructose, which causes a slower release of glucose into the blood stream and promotes good health. When making desserts, try using fresh or frozen fruit. A quick and easy way to serve a deliciously scented dessert is by making a taste-tingling fruit skewer with pieces of pineapple, melon, ripe strawberries and sweet grapes.

A skinny covering

When making custard, use low-fat or skim milk or use the commercial "lite" version. Fat-free or low-fat sugar-free vanilla yoghurt is an ideal substitute for cream or ice-cream on a pudding.

Here is a nutritional analysis of these popular dessert items:

Cream (per 100g/ml)

Energy: 2,270kJ

Protein: 1.3g

Total fat: 60g

Carbohydrates: 1.9g

Sugar: 1.9g

Ice-cream (per 100g/ml)

Energy: 878kJ

Protein: 3.5g

Total fat: 9.8g

Carbohydrates: 26.8g

Sugar: 24.5g

Vanilla yoghurt (per 100g/ml)

Energy: 285kJ

Protein: 3.4g

Total fat: 0.5g

Carbohydrates: 13.1g

Sugar: 10.3g

Lite vanilla custard (per 100g/ml)

Energy: 248kJ

Protein: 3.1g

Total fat: 1.6g

Carbohydrates: 8g

Sugar: 4.6g

• Mayuri Bhawan is a registered dietician and image consultant with Nutritional Solutions

Sidebar

Waist-friendly recipes

Here are some of my favourite recipes that are simple to prepare, and won’t pile on the kilos.

Home-made vanilla custard

Serves 4 (half a cup each)

2 cups fat-free milk

1 tsp vanilla essence

2 large eggs

5ml corn flour

2 tbs sugalite baking sweetener

Method:

1. Gently heat the milk and vanilla essence in a small saucepan.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the eggs, corn flour and sweetener until smooth. Slowly whisk the warmed milk mixture (about ¼ cup at a time) into the egg mixture, and then place the mixture back into the saucepan and onto a low heat while stirring constantly for approximately 10 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened.

Analysis per serving of custard — energy: 368kJ; protein: 7.4g; fat: 2.9g; carbohydrates: 6.4g; sugar:0g

Delicious date balls

Makes 30 (depending on size)

250g dates, chopped

80ml canola margarine

30ml castor sugar

30ml sugalite

1 large egg yolk, beaten

5ml vanilla essence

1 packet digestive biscuits, crushed

100g crushed almonds

Method:

1. Combine the dates, margarine and sugar in a pot until the margarine melts.

2. Mix in the egg and vanilla essence.

3. Mix in the crushed biscuits.

4. Allow the mixture to cool, and then roll into balls and then roll in crushed almonds.

Analysis per date ball — energy: 360kj; protein: 0.8g; fat: 3.3g; carbohydrates: 11.6g; sugar: 3.8g

Spiced strawberries with pistachio nut topping

(Serves 4)

16 large strawberries, tops trimmed off

150ml red wine

4 whole cloves

2 whole star anise

1 cinnamon stick

For the pistachio nut topping:

1 tub fat-free smooth cottage cheese

2 tbs roasted pistachio nuts, crushed

1 tbs Sugalite baking sweetener

Method:

1. Heat the oven to 180°C.

2. Place the strawberries together with the spices and wine into a snug baking dish, and place in the oven.

3. While waiting for the strawberries to cook, mix together the cottage cheese, pistachio nuts and the sweetener, and chill in the fridge.

4. Bake the strawberries for 20 to 30 minutes, or until deep red in colour and soft.

5. Serve the spiced strawberries in warmed dessert bowls with some of the spiced red wine juices, and an ice-cream-ball-roll of pistachio nut "cream cheese".

Analysis per serving of strawberries — energy: 590kj; protein: 8.5g; fat: 4.8g; carbohydrates: 7g; added sugar:0g

Christmas fruit cake (recipe taken from Eating for Sustained Energy 2, by Gabi Steenkamp and Liesbet Delport, published by Tafelberg)

Serves 20 (serving size: one piece)

250ml (1 c) water

125ml (½ c) fat-free milk

125ml (½ c) soft "lite" margarine

125ml (½ c) sultanas

35 (½ x 250g packet) dried apricot halves, roughly chopped

12 (½ x 250g packet) dried prunes

10 (½ x 250g packet) dried peach halves, roughly chopped

30ml (2 tbsp) currants

125ml (½ c) white sugar

5ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate soda

1ml (¼ tsp) salt

10 pecan nut halves, chopped

190ml (¾ c) cake flour

5ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda

5ml (1 tsp) baking powder

85ml (1/3 c) oat bran

250ml (1 c) whole-wheat ProNutro

1 apple, peeled and very finely grated

1 egg

2ml (½ tsp) almond essence

1 egg white, beaten

Method

1. Place the water, milk, margarine, fruit, sugar, 5ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda, the salt and nuts in a large saucepan. Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.

2. Remove from the heat, pour into a bowl and allow to cool completely.

3. Remove the pips from the prunes. Preheat the oven to 160°C.

4. Sift together the flour, 5ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda, and baking powder over the cooled fruits in the bowl.

5. Add the oat bran, the whole-wheat ProNutro and grated apple.

6. Mix gently with a wooden spoon.

7. Beat the egg and almond essence together, and add to the batter.

8. Whisk the egg white and fold it into the mixture.

9. Spoon the batter into a nonstick baking pan ( a 30cm long loaf pan or 15cm square or round pan), which has been sprayed with nonstick spray.

10. Bake for two hours, or until a knife or skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

11. Allow to cool completely, then sprinkle with a little brandy (optional).

12. Store in an airtight container, or cover with foil and store for two days in the fridge before eating.

Analysis per serving of Christmas cake — energy: 673kj; protein: 3g; fat: 4g; carbohydrates: 26g.