The Better Choice: Red WineFor that you can thank the skin of the grape. "That's where the antioxidant resveratrol is found," says Ann Yelmokas McDermott, Ph.D., a nutrition researcher at Tufts University, in Boston. Resveratrol, a phytochemical with a structure similar to estrogen's, has a number of beneficial properties, such as anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant, and cholesterol-improving effects.
But… The grape skins that make red wine healthy are also the source of tannins, which can cause headaches in some people. White wine doesn't contain tannins, so it's less likely to trigger headaches.
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Mixed Nuts or Olives?
The Better Choice: OlivesLike olive oil, olives are high in monounsaturated fats, which help lower cholesterol. They're also low in calories. Each olive has only about five calories and less than a gram of fat, while one pecan, for example, has almost 14 calories and nearly two grams of fat. And though you can toss back numerous nuts almost too easily, olives often require a little more work. And when you're left with a plateful of pits, you'll know exactly how many you've put away.
But… Nuts are also high in monounsaturated fats, and they're a good source of fiber and arginine, an amino acid that helps keep blood vessels relaxed and open.
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Soft or Hard Cheese?
The Better Choice: Soft CheeseBrie is hardly a health food, but some soft cheeses (like Brie and goat) are slightly lower in calories than hard cheeses (like Cheddar and Gruyère). A one-ounce serving of Brie―about the amount you'd put on two crackers―contains 94 calories; one ounce of Gruyère has 117 calories. While all cheese is high in fat―most of it the artery-clogging, saturated kind―soft cheeses have a tiny bit less fat than hard (eight grams in an ounce of Brie, nine in an ounce of Cheddar).
But… You'll get a slightly bigger dose of calcium from hard cheese. A serving of Gruyère packs 286 milligrams of bone-strengthening calcium, while a serving of Brie contains a mere 52 milligrams.
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Cheese and Crackers or Crudités and Dip?
The Better Choice: Crudités and DipA platter of nutrient-rich vegetables wins over a saturated fat-filled cheese board. But even here some offerings are better than others. "Favor colorful vegetables, like red peppers, carrots, and broccoli," suggests Kristine Clark, a registered dietitian and the director of sports nutrition at Penn State University, in State College, Pennsylvania. Filling your plate with such a mix guarantees that you're eating a wide variety of vitamins and antioxidants.
But… If the dip contains sour cream or mayonnaise, you'll be scooping up lots of extra calories and saturated fat along with every bite. So don't double-dip.
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Pigs in a Blanket or Mini Quiches?
The Better Choice: Mini QuichesBoth are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. But when forced to choose the lesser of two evils, the nutritionists agree that quiche has more redeeming qualities―including some calcium from the cheese, high-quality protein from the eggs, and perhaps some extra nutrients from any vegetables that are mixed in. "The piggy option is a highly processed meat packed with additives," says registered dietitian Mary Ryan, "and the 'blanket' is a refined carbohydrate often made with trans fats."
But… Mini quiches can also have crusts that contain trans fats. Probably best to enjoy one, then go back quickly to the crudités.
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Roast Beef or Ham?
The Better Choice: Roast BeefRoast beef is less processed, contains about half as much saturated fat, and has three times as much iron. It's also rich in B vitamins. Both meats are great sources of protein, but the ham has almost three times as much sodium.
But… Research has linked red-meat consumption with an increased risk of colon cancer. One study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who ate two or more ounces of red meat a day were 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate little or none. Whichever option you choose, eat it sparingly.
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Champagne or a Cocktail?
The Better Choice: ChampagneBring on the bubbly. From a purely caloric standpoint, Champagne is the clear winner of this contest. A flute has about 75 calories, while a mixed drink, like a whiskey sour, can have up to 240 calories. Some experts say the bubbles may even help fill you up, so you won't feel as tempted by the endless cocktail-party treats.
But… You can slim down a cocktail by using a sugar-free mixer or club soda instead of fruit juice, tonic, or a sugary mix. And although a screwdriver or a Cosmo does contain juice, the health benefits are probably not worth the extra calories.
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Sugar Cookie or Gingerbread Cookie?
The Better Choice: Gingerbread CookieThe average sugar cookie has about twice as many calories as a gingerbread cookie, thanks to large amounts of butter. "Anything that tastes buttery and has that nice, delicate texture is going to be really high in calories," says Ryan. Sugar cookies are also twice as high in saturated fat.
But… While the gingerbread cookie has fewer calories, they're still empty calories. Best not to put your hand in the jar too many times, regardless.
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Cocoa or Eggnog?
The Better Choice: CocoaEggnog and cocoa that is made with real milk both have lots of calcium, about 300 milligrams in eight ounces. But eggnog, as the name implies, also contains eggs and sometimes heavy cream and brandy, which translates into about 300 calories and 12 grams of fat in a five-ounce serving. "Cocoa, even when it's made with whole milk, has only half the calories of eggnog," says registered dietitian Kristine Clark. Cocoa also contains potent antioxidants called flavonoids that help prevent arteries from clogging and keep blood platelets from sticking together.
But… Most cocoa is the instant variety, which contains less protein, calcium, and flavonoids and more sodium and sugar than homemade.
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Candy Cane or Chocolate Kisses?
The Better Choice: Candy CaneThere are plenty of good reasons to select the cane over the Kiss. Granted, a candy cane is pure sugar, with no real nutritional value, but as indulgences go, it's pretty mild. "It lasts a lot longer than a piece of chocolate, so it will keep you away from the candy dish for quite a while," says registered dietitian Kristine Clark. A candy cane contains about 55 calories and no fat, while five chocolate Kisses contain 127 calories and seven grams of fat. "Plus, peppermint gives you a lift and freshens your breath," says Lisa Dorfman, a registered dietitian and the author of The Tropical Diet (Food Fitness International, $20, amazon.com). Both are good selling points at a party.
But… If the Kisses are dark chocolate, you will be consuming flavonoids, which will help to offset the artery-clogging extra fat.