No matter how you spin it, holiday cookies aren’t broccoli, but it’s not broccoli we’re interested in. We’re interested in creating holiday treats that taste spectacular and are filled with ingredients that give our bodies nutrients to work with.

Let’s talk about that holiday cookie platter.

You know the one.

Possibly vintage and adorned with some variation on pine cones and Christmas bells, groaning under the weight of countless varieties of sugary, buttery, floury bites of treasured tradition, the holiday cookie platter will soon make its annual appearance.

And completely freak you out.

Regardless of the holiday you celebrate; Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, Festivus or your own hybrid of everything and then some, it simply wouldn’t be that special holiday without those oh-so-special goodies.

In years past you may have freaked out about the calories and fat, terrified that too many indulgences would push the scale to new heights; an unwanted, yet alarmingly acceptable and seemingly unavoidable outcome of the “indulge till you implode, health considerations be damned” season of feasting.

But now that you’ve been diagnosed, you’re coming at this whole cookie platter situation from a different point of view.

  • You may be concerned about the sugar (it “feeds” the cancer, right?)
  • It may have crossed your mind that it would be in the best interest of your upcoming treatment if your body were as well-nourished as possible, and if you’re being completely honest, Christmas cookies for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late-night snack don’t really fit that paradigm.
  • You may be on the other side of treatment and no longer can tolerate dairy (WTH? No butter? cream? eggnog?).

At the risk of sounding like the Grinch who stole the cookie platter and returned it filled with broccoli florets, I invite you to approach the cookie platter situation with a different perspective.

One of power, choice and intention.

It’s absolutely unnecessary to skip that platter completely, but I encourage you to make deliberate choices that support your health now and in future (that’s where the power lies) and. . .to bake with intention.

WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

When you make deliberate, health-supportive choices, you’ll find yourself eating less or skipping much of what’s offered on that platter, regardless of the sentimental memories they evoke.

The other option for having your cookies and eating them too?

Baking with intention.

HOW TO BAKE WITH INTENTION

Baking with intention is choosing recipes and ingredients that have both a positive effect on your health and the potential to impact the initiation, promotion and progression of breast cancer.

Is that even possible with cookies?

Yes.

But let’s be real.

No matter how you spin it, holiday cookies aren’t broccoli, but it’s not broccoli we’re interested in. We’re interested in creating holiday treats that taste spectacular and are filled with ingredients that give our bodies nutrients to work with.

They’re not mutually exclusive.

I call these special ingredients, ingredients with benefits – IWB’s.

Look, you may be on Christmas vacation, but your body works 365 days per year, AROUND THE CLOCK to protect you. What do you say to giving it a little help, eh?

A recipe that calls for nothing but butter, flour and sugar will certainly produce a gorgeous cookie, but nothing in the way of nutrients that protect your body.

Rather than writing a “how to make over your holiday baking” article, consider this a “let me introduce you to the idea of powering up your holiday treats by including nourishing ingredients” article.

INGREDIENTS WITH BENEFITS

Here’s a list of a few of my favorites to get you started. . .

Cocoa – Outside of its unmatched flavor contribution, the benefit of cocoa is a collection of antioxidants called flavonoids. Cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods and has been shown to increase apoptosis (cell death) and antioxidant levels in the blood. (1, 2)

One to two tablespoons of natural cocoa powder provide about the same amount of flavonoids as half an ounce of dark chocolate, the amount suggested by studies to offer health benefits.

Be sure to use pure cocoa. Pre-made cocoa “mixes” tend to be made with alkali-treated cocoa (aka Dutch cocoa) which contains lower levels of those beneficial flavonoid compounds. (3)

Dried fruits (dates, figs, prunes) – The choice of dried fruits is as varied as the snowflakes falling outside your window, and they’re all great ingredients, it just so happens that dates, figs and prunes tend to be my top three go-to’s.

Everyone knows that prunes are a delicious way to keep things moving in the old digestive tract, but they also contain ursolic acid, a bioactive compound that in some studies has been observed to target signalling pathways that support potential anti-cancer activity. (4)

Dried figs are a great source of bioactive compounds, primarily anthocyanins, and dried dates are a good source of phenolics, carotenoids and antioxidants. (5, 6)

Whole wheat pastry flour – Pastry flour is a low-protein flour designed for baking cookies, cakes and pies that are perfect in texture; chewy, crispy, or light and airy, depending on the recipe.

For texturally-perfect and nutritionally-elevated treats, replace all-purpose flour in any recipe with whole wheat pastry flour, or use half all-purpose and half-whole wheat pastry; you’ll get the same outcome with the added benefit of whole grains.

Flax – We have some, but need even more human studies on the connection between flaxseed and breast cancer, yet current research suggests flaxseed has the potential to reduce breast cancer tumor growth (mainly in postmenopausal women) and risk. (7, 8)

That said, I’m completely comfortable using flaxseed when I bake, as both a stand-alone ingredient and an egg “replacement” (I eat a vegan diet, so my baked treats are animal product-free.)

Flaxseed adds fiber, phytochemicals, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. To get the full spectrum of health benefits, use ground flaxseed; you can grind whole flaxseed in a coffee grinder or purchase it pre-ground.

Quinoa – Quinoa may not be a food you consider when you pull out the cookie sheets, but you should!

I add uncooked quinoa to granola (hey, that’s baking!) and raw, no-bake bars and balls (ok, that’s not baking, but they do end up on my cookie platter), and cooked quinoa to muffins and cookies.

Quinoa adds a delectable crunch when it’s raw, heft and moisture when it’s cooked, plus a full amino acid profile, fiber, and a healthy dose of potassium.

For those of you with celiac disease or other gluten-intolerance issues, quinoa contains no gluten.

Maple syrup and Molasses – It’s impossible to have baked goods without the sweet component, but for my taste most recipes (even those that are vegan or have a “healthy” slant) are overly sweet.  

There’s no need to avoid white sugar completely (unless you want to), but I like to 1) dramatically reduce the amount called for, or 2) find a suitable replacement that offers even a little nutritional value.

I use a couple of dry sweetener options in place of white sugar, like sucanat for example, but also maple syrup and molasses as often as possible. (9)

Molasses contains calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium, and maple syrup is a good source of vitamins and minerals, 100% natural and unrefined, and rich in polyphenolic lignans and the phytohormone abscisic acid. (10)

In order to maintain the integrity of an original recipe when substituting dry sweeteners with liquid sweeteners, some kitchen calculation has to happen. I’ve included a link below for how to substitute liquid sweeteners in baking. (11)

By the way, it’s possible to reduce by one-third the amount of sugar called for in any recipe without negatively impacting the flavor or texture. Experiment with your favorites, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Nuts and seeds + Herbs and spices – Healthy fats, proteins and antioxidants, phytochemicals and bioactive compounds accompany the richness and depth of flavor these not-to-be-skipped ingredients add to pretty much anything you bake.

Healthy Fats – Just as I swap out white sugar for something more nutritionally hefty, I do the same with fats. Olive and canola oil are two liquid oils I use regularly; canola is very mild so it can stand in for other fats without altering a recipe’s flavor profile.

Olive oil’s more pronounced flavor can peek through where you may not want it, so until you’re more experienced with swapping it in, I advise using it only in recipes that call for olive oil.

Plant-based Spreads – Let’s be clear. Non-dairy butters and spreads are in no way paragons of nutritional virtue; in fact, they offer nothing in the way of nutrition. But they do fill a void for people who eat a vegan diet or can’t tolerate dairy, and do so without adding artificial, unhealthy ingredients (typically! check labels to be sure.)

My favorite is Earth Balance (spreads and baking sticks), but there are a number of options on the market. (12)

And there you have it – my recommendations for ramping up the nutritional oomph in your holiday goodies. Now when you leave a plate of cookies for old Santa? Hopefully he’ll take them home to Mrs. Claus. . .you know why she’ll thank you!

Do you have my FREE nutrition and fitness JUMPSTART worksheet? Get it here.

SOURCES

  1. Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease
  2. Potential for preventive effects of cocoa and cocoa polyphenols in cancer
  3. We hear so much about antioxidant compounds in chocolate. What about cocoa and chocolate milk?
  4. Phytochemicals in diets for breast cancer prevention: The importance of resveratrol and ursolic acid
  5. Phenolic compound content of fresh and dried figs (Ficus caricaL.)
  6. A review on the nutritional content, functional properties and medicinal potential of dates
  7. The Effect of Flaxseed in Breast Cancer: A Literature Review
  8. Meta-analyses of lignans and enterolignans in relation to breast cancer risk
  9. What is Sucanat? How it’s made, how to use it, and everything else you need to know about this minimally refined cane sugar.
  10. Comparative analysis of maple syrup to other natural sweeteners and evaluation of their metabolic responses in healthy rats
  11. Baking with Liquid Sweeteners
  12. Earth Balance Products