The holidays are often filled with cheer—and cookies, cakes, and other delicious foods galore. There’s no better time of the year to indulge in your favorite dishes with loved ones, but if you’re enjoying copious amounts of sugary, high-calorie foods and drinks, you may find yourself spending much of the season laying around and grumbling about a bellyache rather than enjoying.
Apart from how it can make you feel, consuming excessive amounts of sugar—which is especially easy to do when you’re drinking it—can lead to higher risks of heart disease, fatty liver, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
With that being said, if you look forward to a rich glass of eggnog all year long or are always first in line for a peppermint mocha, enjoy those treats and find balance in what you choose to eat. But if you prefer the sugary foods at this time of year, you might want to ease up on the unhealthy holiday drinks to prevent the dreaded sugar crash.
To help you make the best choices this season, we spoke with registered dietitians to find out which drinks are the least nutritious plus tips for enjoying better-for-you options. Read on, and for more healthy eating tips this holiday season, check out these 8 Healthy Dishes Dietitians Are Bringing to Holiday Parties This Year.
A mudslide is the perfect sweet, creamy, cozy holiday drink. This beverage, which was invented in the 1970s in the Grand Caymans, is basically a White Russian made with Bailey’s Irish Cream and a chocolate garnish of some sort. However, some restaurants take it even further, incorporating ice cream into this mixture as well.
While it’s delicious, this drink is best consumed in moderation because of its heavy saturated fat content thanks to the heavy cream and ice cream. If you sip on Mudslides all winter long, you’re consuming a lot of extra saturated fat over time, which can increase your risk of heart disease according to the American Heart Association.
The Tom & Jerry is a lesser-known cocktail, but fans of this drink know that it’s a deliciously creamy way to enjoy the season. The drink is made with rum, cognac, whole milk, and something known as the Tom & Jerry batter, which is typically made with egg whites, cream of tartar, and more dark rum.
Rum is high in calories, but more importantly, regular consumption of alcohol can lead to serious health risks including fatty liver, liver failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and pancreatic cancer.
Enjoying this drink once in a while can be a nice treat, but regularly consuming this amount of alcohol and fat content from the milk and cream of tartar may not be the best choice on top of all your other holiday indulgences.
Eggnog is a notoriously unhealthy holiday drink that is unsurprisingly high in saturated fat and cholesterol in addition to sugar. This beverage is made with eggs, cream, sugar, and milk, so it makes sense that it contains half a day’s worth of cholesterol and more than a third of the suggested daily amount of saturated fat.
Luckily, there are some heart-healthy, lighter options, such as soy or almond nogs, which are lower in calories, sugar, and fat.
“Whether spiked or not, this drink is loaded with added sugar and saturated fat,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD at Balance One Supplements. “To combat this, consider switching to an almond nog by trading the cream for almond or another nut milk.”
You can also cut the sugar content fairly easily. “Instead of adding all the sugar, add a bit less, and rely on cinnamon and nutmeg for the sweet flavor or use a noncaloric sweetener like Stevia,” says Mascha Davis MPH, RDN, registered dietitian and nutritionist.
Sugary sherbet floating in a sea of fruit juice and lemon-lime soda—this drink is definitely not good for you. This party staple is a classic for a reason: it’s simple and cheap to make for a crowd, and it’s pretty delicious!
But the amount of sugar in soda, fruit juice, and sherbet is a lot, and it only goes up if you’re feeling thirsty. Enjoy a small cup if you love this drink, but otherwise, this one is best left at the beverage table.
Alcohol is hardly a healthy or nutritious option, but a Hot Buttered Rum can be worse than most alcoholic options.
“This drink contains rum, butter, cider, and sweetener and is high in calories and sugar,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim and member of our medical expert advisory board. “It is also one of the few alcoholic drinks that contains saturated fat.”
The butter is high in saturated fat, while the cider and sweetener are high in sugars. “For an easy switch that doesn’t give up the sweetness, swap the brown sugar for a non-caloric sweetener like monk fruit,” Davis suggests.
Pumpkin spice season is quickly followed by peppermint mocha season, and that morning latte is more detrimental to your health than you might realize. A standard, 16-ounce Grande cup size at Starbucks has 440 calories, 10 grams of saturated fat, and a shocking 54 grams of sugar.
For perspective, that’s the same amount of sugar you’d consume in three jelly-filled donuts. This amount of saturated fat is also about half the recommended limit per day.
There are some ways to enjoy this holiday staple without going overboard, though. “Opt for the ‘skinny’ version of the drink made with nonfat milk, sugar-free peppermint syrup, and no whipped cream,” says Davis. Or, you can simply “order a smaller size,” says Young.
If you’re feeling up for it, try making your own at home, testing recipes with dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder and natural sweeteners, plus low-fat or non-dairy milk.
Another popular holiday cocktail, the White Russian mixes cream with two types of alcohol: vodka and coffee liqueur. The more alcohol, the more troubles for your liver. The cream won’t do your health any favors, either, as it is fatty by nature.
Sip on the occasional cocktail if you wish, but be mindful of how many you consume. Or, to lighten it up, Davis suggests using “soy or almond milk creamer instead of heavy cream.” And be sure to stay hydrated with some good, ol’ fashioned water.
What’s a snow day without a little hot cocoa? Whether you prefer hot cocoa, which is made with cocoa powder, or hot chocolate, which is made with chocolate bars or chips, you should be aware of what you’re actually sipping.
“Like many other holiday drinks, hot cocoa is often filled with added sugars,” Davis says. Each cup can have about 20 grams, depending on what you choose. And once you add whipped cream and marshmallows, you’ll be very close to or even past the recommended amount of 25-36 grams of sugar per day.
“To avoid this, skip the store-bought kind and make your own hot chocolate at home,” Davis suggests. “You can use unsweetened cocoa powder and a low-fat milk with some vanilla.” Then, garnish with a cinnamon stick or orange peel for a healthy, festive flair.
Beer is one of the most popular drinks of all time, and around the holiday season, festive brews abound. While it can be tempting to try them all, don’t forget that beer in excess isn’t great for your health. Sure, toast with loved ones and try a few new seasonal beers, but enjoy it in moderation.
Davis explains that winter beers are typically darker ales, which are higher in calories and carbs. Instead, it’s better to “opt for a lite version of the beer or a spiked seltzer,” says Davis.
Apple cider is made from apples, so that means it’s healthy, right? Not necessarily. While apples are a good source of fiber and vitamin C, the benefits of these nutrients are stripped away as they are peeled and processed to become apple juice and cider.
Fresh cider may maintain more nutrients than apple juice made with added sugar, but it is still high in sugar and pales in comparison to the benefits of eating the apple in its whole. This drink is often served spiked around this time of year, too, which only further degrades the health benefits.
So what’s an apple cider-lover to do?
“Luckily you can make your own at home to control the sugar content and add your own flavors like cinnamon and nutmeg,” Davis recommends.
Red wine on its own and in moderation can be a heart-healthy alcoholic beverage thanks to resveratrol, which may lower risk of heart disease via inflammation and blood clots.
Mulled wine, though, brings sugary additions like raisins or cider into play, as well as straight sugar. And not only that, but “This drink also calls for two types of alcohol, red wine and brandy, which isn’t ideal for liver health,” says Best.
“This drink combines wine, brandy, lemon, sugar, and some other spices,” Davis explains. “To make a healthier version, reduce the sugar content by half and add more fresh fruit to give a natural sweet flavor instead.”
As Davis explains, Irish coffee is comprised of Irish whisky, cream, brown sugar, and hot coffee, “making it a bit high in fat and sugar.”
She suggests lowering the saturated fat and added sugars by switching the cream for non-fat milk or dairy-free creamer. “You can also skip the extra brown sugar and add cinnamon or nutmeg for flavor instead,” she says.
Have a glass if this is your favorite cocktail. Otherwise, just remember to be mindful of alcohol consumption this holiday season.
A previous version of this article was originally published in December 2020. It has been updated with additional entries and expert quotes.