'Tis the season for holiday parties, and if there's one thing you're dreading more than awkward conversations with drunken acquaintances, it's the array of deep-fried diet-busters awaiting you at the refreshment table. How are you supposed to keep eating healthy and feeling under-the-mistletoe sexy when cocktail franks are calling your name? We asked Ani Aratounians, MS, RD, the manager of nutrition and culinary development for Team Beachbody®, to help us navigate the good, the bad, and the ugly among your favorite holiday appetizers.
Hummus and Veggies
What's Good: "Hummus is an exceptionally healthy food, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, protein, fiber, zinc, and magnesium," says Aratounians. "Paired with fresh veggies, it becomes a powerhouse of nutrients."
Bad: Hummus contains around 25 calories per tablespoon—so if you don't keep an eye on how much you're scooping, you can rack up calories quickly. In other words, less hummus and more veggies is the ideal strategy.
What's Good: "Not only is shrimp a good source of the antioxidant/anti-inflammatory astaxanthin, as well as omega-3s, but 80% of its calories come from protein," says Aratounians.
What's Bad: Shrimp are high in cholesterol, which may be an issue for those who are watching their numbers—but for most people, the high omega-3 content still makes it a worthy option. Just be careful not to douse the shrimp in high-sodium/high-sugar cocktail sauce.
What's Good: "Chicken skewers made with low-fat, high-protein chicken breast can be a healthy and filling appetizer," Aratounians says. "If the chicken pieces are layered with superfood veggies such as peppers and zucchini, it makes it even better."
What's Bad: If the chicken is breaded or slathered in a sugary sauce, you may wind up consuming a lot of hidden calories and carbs.
What's Good: The scallops—they're an awesome source of selenium, phosphorus, B12, zinc, iron, omega-3s, copper, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
What's Bad: The bacon, of course. "Wrapping scallops in bacon can potentially triple their calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol content," says Aratounians. Indulge in one or two if they're your absolute favorite, but don't polish off the whole tray.
What's Good: They have potential. "Stuffed mushrooms can make a delicious and healthy bite-sized appetizer, as long as the stuffing is veggie-based and isn't loaded with bread crumbs, cheese, and cream," Aratounians says.
What's Bad: What's inside is anyone's guess. While there are plenty of healthy homemade recipes out there, most people will opt for the carb-heavy, prepackaged variety. "Stuffed mushrooms are labor-intensive, so they're usually store-bought," cautions Aratounians. "This makes it harder to find healthier versions." Of course, you can always find out who brought the mushrooms and ask for their recipe—and then plan your noshing strategy accordingly.
What's Good: "Raw nuts can be a nutritious appetizer that provides heart-healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals," Aratounians says.
What's Bad: Portion control is a toughie—who can stop after an ounce of nuts? "You can quickly add hundreds of calories to your daily intake without even realizing it," warns Aratounians.
What's Good: The spinach—and that's about it.
What's Bad: The leafy greens are usually drowning in mayo and cheese—and you're probably scooping them up with chips, crackers, or pumpernickel. "Although this is a party favorite, a few tablespoons of this dip can be loaded with hundreds of calories that come mostly from saturated fats," Aratounians says.
What's Good: They're easy. There's a reason heat-and-eat apps like pizza rolls, cocktail franks, and mini quiches are a party staple. After all, you don't have to be Martha Stewart to microwave some Southwestern egg rolls.
What's Bad: "Packaged appetizers are often highly processed and loaded with calories, sodium, unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, additives, and preservatives," says Aratounians. "This makes them one of the unhealthiest choices with hardly any nutritional benefits."
Nachos and Cheese
What's Good: Salsa can be low in calories and a good source of antioxidants, lycopene, and potassium.
What's Bad: Everything else. "Most cheese sauces don't even meet the requirements for being called cheese—they're loaded with neon-orange food dyes and MSG," says Aratounians. "This appetizer is high in calories, fat, sodium, additives, and preservatives—need I say more?" Nope, that pretty much covers it.
Of course, even when you know the nutritional damage of your favorite finger foods, it's hard to resist temptation when it's staring you in the face. The easiest way to avoid overeating? "Don't go to a party hungry!" Aratounians says. "Have a Shakeology® with water and ice, or a handful of raw nuts, before you head out." Two more smart tips from her: Hold a glass of wine in one hand and your phone in the other, so you can't nibble without doing some juggling. And if you're worried there won't be any healthy options, bring one with you—you'll salvage your diet and help the host out. Win-win!