It hardly looks like winter as I watch the squirrels run back and forth between the houses here on my street, let alone less than three weeks until Christmas.

Yet despite the lack of snow, many of us put up the Christmas lights, decorated our homes and even put up trees weeks ago. My neighbour actually has seven, albeit not all are full sized. So why so many? Simple. She says looking at them makes her smile.

It's well known that happy people are generally healthier people. Not only do happy people have fewer stress hormones and tend to engage in more physical activity, when you're happy, your body releases endorphins which helps ease pain, heal and generally make you feel better. Your brain releases endorphins in response to things that make you happy. And given the way this year has unfolded, doing more things that make you happy should definitely be considered essential. One of those things for me, is Christmas baking.

Yes, this health nut does engage in a practice generally associated with uber amounts of sugar, sprinkles, chocolate and candied, well everything. Because it makes me happy to see my family enjoying their favourites. The other thing that makes me smile even bigger, is when I've been able to swap out some ingredients in a favourite family recipe, creating something healthy and just as delicious. And if not totally healthy, at least minimize the carnage.

Let's be real. When it comes to the holidays, people tend to eat more meals out, chow down larger portions, consume more sugar, and drink more alcohol than any other time of the year. And that's during holiday years that didn't come with restrictions. We've seen consumption of all of these increase even well before December arrived. Why? For the vast majority, food is comforting. When you can't visit mom, digging out and making some of her recipes is likely to make you feel closer to her. And you'll smile. What I'm hearing from my clients however, is that the extra weight that comes as a result of all these indulgences is not making them smile. What does turn their frowns upside down however, is learning that you can have your cake – or Christmas cookie – and eat it too.

The first thing we talk about is swapping ingredients. There are many, many items you can make healthy swaps with, but I'm going to deal with the three that are found in a lot of holiday recipes - sugar, white flour, lard/shortening. When it comes to sugar, I swap out white sugar for stevia or monk fruit, and brown sugar for coconut palm sugar. Stevia and monk fruit both have glycemic index of zero, meaning it will not cause any fluctuation in blood sugar, while coconut palm sugar comes in at 35. The higher the number, the higher and faster blood sugar spikes on consumption. White and brown sugar sit at 68.

Wheat flour, when grown without toxins, before GMO, and ground as needed for use, was once a healthy staple. Today it's become a huge source of digestive distress as evidenced by the growing numbers of leaky gut, IBS, colitis, Crohn's, gluten intolerance, wheat intolerance, and celiac's disease. If you're one of the lucky ones without any digestive issues, you're still going to benefit by eliminating the bloat that generally comes with wheat/gluten items. Depending on the recipe, you may be able to replace one to one, or perhaps a combination may be needed to get the desired consistency and result. The simplest is to choose a good quality gluten-free flour. Most will say on the package how to use it in place of regular flour. My go to is organic, non GMO spelt flour. Although not gluten free, I've found it does work for most people. I also keep on hand, arrowroot, almond, coconut and quinoa flours, which are gluten free, to use in specific recipes.

I've always made my own pastry and years ago lard or shortening were the fats of choice. Today, coconut oil (solid of course) is my fat of choice. Grass-fed, grass-finished butter is also an upgrade from lard, depending on how dairy affects you as it can be another bloater. Just a little tip, roll your pastry out on a parchment paper for an easier transfer.

As I said, there are many things you can add, swap, or simply remove to create healthier, more balanced treats. Try swapping cashew cream for cream cheese; olive/avocado/coconut oil for toxic vegetable oils; applesauce as part of any oil measurement; and the right protein powder can be used in cupcakes, muffins or loaves, replacement for sugar in a crumble topping, base for puddings/mousses, “rum” balls, replace icing sugar for frostings... the list is endless.

Christmas – the dinner, the cheesy movies, the Story, and yes, even the cookies, are essential. This year more than ever. Not for the sprinkles, but for the happy memories, the peace, and the smiles.

For healthy, delicious Christmas recipes head over to the 8 Weeks is All it Takes group on Facebook. December 1 – 12 enjoy new recipes daily with the #12DaysofZen recipe challenge and WIN!

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