Think the sugar rush ends the moment we pack away our Halloween costumes? It’s actually just the beginning of the end-of-the-year run of holiday parties that surround us with sugary treats.
Sugar’s gotten a lot of bad press through the years, as study after study has shown it to be bad for our health. Consuming sugar has been linked to cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, depression and obesity.
Simply put, sugar is a crystalline carbohydrate that makes foods taste sweet. There are many different kinds of sugar. Some sugars, such as glucose, fructose and lactose, occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and other foods, such as dairy. But many of the foods we consume contain added sugar—sugar that we or the manufacturer has added to enhance flavor.
And we’ve acquired quite a taste for foods with added sugars. Adults in the United States consumed around 13 percent of their total daily calorie intake from added sugars between 2005 and 2010, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts agree we need to “de-sweeten” our lives. Problem is the food industry has primed our taste buds to crave sweetness. About 80 percent of the 600,000 food items in grocery stores contain added sugar, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“What has happened is that we’ve become accustomed to very high levels of sweetness so that if something isn’t super-sweet—like a strawberry—we’re probably not going to detect the natural sweetness in that strawberry,” says Marianne Carter, registered dietitian and director of the Center for Health Promotion at Delaware State University in Dover.
And, she adds, swapping table sugar for artificial sweeteners sugars the palate even more.
But is it realistic—and even safe—to completely eliminate sugar from a diet?
“It’s not realistic because if you were to eliminate all sugars, you wouldn’t be able to eat fruit, you wouldn’t be able to have dairy products and you would eliminate all the naturally occurring sugars that are in foods that we need,” says Carter.
Moreover, healthy carbs are an essential part of our diets, as they provide glucose, which converts to energy to support bodily functions and physical activity.
And the fact is, holiday sweets hold a lot of emotional significance, as they are a part of longstanding family and workplace traditions. “I wouldn’t want you not to have a piece of that holiday fudge,” says Carter. “But having a small piece is different from gorging on it everyday for a week.”
Finding that balance will help keep you in the zone of happy indulgence rather than in the misery of the after-effects of a sugarcoated binge.
Here are some ways to avoid a holiday sugar overdose:
- Ditch the all-or-nothing mentality. Constant self-denial can lead to binging and a total derailment of your dietary plans. “It’s OK to give yourself permission to have one or two cookies,” says Carter. “That won’t break the calorie bank. It’s all about moderation.”
- Follow American Heart Association guidelines, which state that adults should limit their intake of added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day. That should get easier to calculate when new FDA labels begin providing that information next year.
- Remember: Alcohol is sugar. Holiday parties bring to life the phrase “drink and be merry,” but beer and wine can be especially high in sugars—as can many of the mixers used in cocktails.
- Pair sugary treats with healthy fats and fiber. Eating whole grains, nuts and seeds along with holiday sweets can help slow the absorption of sugar. Moreover, fiber can help you feel full so you’ll consume less of everything.
- Control your environment. If cookies are your dietary downfall but you still want to gift friends and family with an edible treat, try baking bread instead. “It’s easy to grab a cookie while they’re cooling on the counter,” says Carter. “But you wouldn’t slice off a piece of bread.”
- Move away from the food table. Visual cues are powerful. Simply seeing sweet treats may tempt you to indulge even if you’re not hungry. Chatting with friends and family away from the food table will keep you from picking at the goodies. And aren’t the holidays more about friends and family anyway?