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Sweet, Sugar-Free Holidays

Written by contributor Amy Thompson of Progressive Pioneer.

The big turning point in how we make and eat sweet treats in our home actually came when I was potty training my son.  We did a little candy bribery to encourage him to use the potty.  We used the good health food store type of chocolates, but even then after 24 hours of a steady stream of sugar, my son was a nut!

The difference between my kids on sugar and off is night and dayAnd so, I did a sweep through the house and tossed all the refined sugar and flour.

We now only cook with whole wheat flour and unrefined sweeteners.  Because I happen to love treats, we still have them fairly often; they’re just not the kind of treats that leave you with a sugar hangover.  And often guests can’t even tell that they’re eating “healthy” desserts.

Carrot/Pumpkin Cupcakes

For my son’s birthday party, we had carrot cupcakes with cream cheese frosting.  They were all whole wheat and only sweetened with honey.

For the holidays, you could use 2 cups pumpkin puree and leave out the carrots and a bit of the pineapple, though you may need to add a bit of extra honey because the pineapple adds sweetness.  Swap out the cinnamon for pumpkin pie spice, and you’ll have a very merry treat. These would be perfect for Thanksgiving, too, and are easy enough to whip up for an impromptu dessert.

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup oil
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups grated carrot
  • 1 cup unsweetened, crushed pineapple, drained
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (I used pecans)

Mix the dry together, and the wet together, then combine them.  Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes for a cake, less for cupcakes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

For the frosting, you can combine cream cheese, butter, vanilla and honey, and it’s delicious.  You can also skip the butter; I just happen to love it that way.

Healthier Brownies

Another dessert that doesn’t suffer in the least from healthy tweaks is brownies.  I promise you will never even notice the difference if you use 100% whole wheat flour. My favorite, most incredibly indulgent recipe can be found here.  All whole wheat and no refined sugar.  Guilt-free indulgence!

Tips for Using Whole Wheat Flour and Honey

I find that many recipes adapt well to using honey instead of white sugar.  The only things you want to watch for are flavor compatibility and consistency.  Honey has its own very delicious flavor, but it may not compliment the recipe.

And, of course, honey is more runny, so you may need to increase your dry ingredients.  When I use whole wheat flour to replace white flour, I often add a bit less than called for, anyway, as it can be dryer and denser than white flour.

Don’t be afraid to mess around with recipes a bit. You can usually substitute at least half of the white flour with whole wheat without changing the character of the dish much.  I usually go for the whole 100% swap even if it changes it a bit; it’s always still delicious – just not exactly like people may expect.

But, they will thank you when they still feel perky and happy after dessert, rather than becoming a permanent fixture on the couch, sluggish and slow.  I don’t know about you, but I feel the effects of refined sugar right away (headache, grumpiness, fatigue…).  It’s so great to be able to enjoy dessert without the side effects.  Hopefully you can find some healthy ways to sweeten your holidays too!

Photo by Stock Exchange

Do you find yourself in sugar overload mode during the holidays? What are your tricks for keeping the sugar intake down? Do you have any favorite healthy dessert recipes?

by Amy

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Darcy Taylor

    Those brownies use evaporated cane sugar – do you actually notice a difference in how you feel using that vs typical cane sugar (granulated white)? I avoid cane sugar in general because it makes me super exhausted and addicted, but honey does not do this to me. I have just assumed evaporated cane juice would be similar to normal cane sugar. I would love to know what your experience with it has been.

    • Amy

      Hi Darcy, I do notice a difference; cane sugar doesn’t give me the drastically bad effects that sugar does, but you’re right, honey is even less impact. So, if you’re particularly sensitive cane sugar might not be as good of a choice for you. Though I think a general principle is that the less refined something is, the easier it is for your body to process. So, even though they come from the same source your body reacts very differently. Kind of like poppy seeds and opium:)

  2. Sandra Lee


    Thank you for these recipes. Those brownies look incredible! White sugar is definitely bad news!

  3. Kara

    Mmm, sugar. So addictive. 🙁 Yes, it’s very easy to eat too many sweets and get headaches. My only trick to keep the sweets down is to not cook too many treats too often (and definitely not buy them). All of your recipes look great too!

  4. priest's wife

    We are working on getting healthier, too- thanks for the recipes- got to go shopping for ingredients

  5. Danielle

    These are great recipes, I’m in charge of a dessert for Thanksgiving, I’ll certainly try a few of these tricks!

  6. Jeanette

    I’ve definitely been thinking about switching out for healthier sweeteners recently. Thanks for the tips. I just read Real Food by Nina Planck. I’ve wanted to give her ideas a try too. She said her mom’s standard practice is to use half the amount of sugar a recipe calls for, and judge it from there if it should go up or even further down! Seems like a smart rule.

  7. Julia

    I’ve experimented a little with stevia in some of my recipes. I really should consult my sister-in-law, who is an expert in adapting recipes for stevia. I often end up taking the easy route and use the sugar that the recipe call for.

  8. Emily @ Live Renewed

    Mmmmm! I am drooling! I have been experimenting with switching out the white sugar and white flour for sucanat and white whole wheat flour in some of my bread and muffin recipes, and have trouble with them being a little dry, but haven’t tried it for sweet treats yet. This is totally encouraging me to go for it though. Mostly, I just don’t bake too many treats that have refined sugar and flour and that helps me to avoid eating them, but sometimes dessert just sounds so good! I need to get a little more adventurous and try honey too, I’ve never baked with it before, but I’m sure it’s so yummy! Great post!

  9. Carleta

    In your cupcake recipe it calls for oil. What kind of oil do you use?

    • Amy

      I often just use olive oil because it’s what I have on hand, and I’ve never noticed that you can taste it. But, a canola or safflower oil would also work great.

  10. Elizabeth

    I am surprised that you use honey in these recipes. I know it is a highly nutritious sweetener, but in ayerveda and natropathy and many other schools of thought, they say honey should never ever be cooked. Why did you choose honey in stead of maple syrup or one of the other alternative sweetners?

    • Amy

      No particular health reason for choosing honey over something like maple syrup, except price and availability. I think most things are better for you raw, especially honey (though I haven’t done much research about the negative effects of cooking it). I guess I just figure honey and whole wheat is better than white flour and sugar. If I want to do something super good for my health I’ll drink a green smoothie, if I want a treat that won’t make me feel sick afterward I’ll make it with whole wheat and honey. Maybe it’s not a perfect food, but it’s better than some of the other alternatives. But, it sounds like you know a lot about sweeteners, so I’d encourage you to alter your recipes according to your own knowledge and experience with how your body reacts to certain foods. Good luck!

  11. Elizabeth

    Oh my goodness, I am so excited to try the carrot/pumpkin muffins. I have been craving desserts but can’t eat refined sugar b/c I’m out of commission with fatigue, low grade fever and body aches for 24 hours if I indulge. Thank you!!

  12. Nisha @ Healthy Mom's Kitchen

    I’m so glad you posted your muffin recipe! I’m creating a recipe for my daughters birthday party using cream cheese frosting on pineapple cupcakes.

  13. Angela Sim-Laramee

    Can you give me a specific recipe for your cream cheese frosting?

  14. hermes kelly 35

    They look delicious. I love them.

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