Love is in the air, and sweet treats are everywhere you turn this time of the year once again. Doesn’t it seem like we just got through the minefield of temptations that the holiday season brings? And here we are again, dodging heart shaped boxes of chocolates, special cupcakes or cookies, and other treats that are supposed to communicate love.
If someone you love brings you a “special treat” it’s hard to decline. And if you’re on your own, you might think that indulgent cupcake with a cup of coffee is just the way to treat yourself. But I urge you to stop and think about it for a moment. Do you really want the treat, or are you falling prey to the commercial messages that surround this holiday? Have you been convinced that sugar equals love? I hope I can show you that it doesn’t!
In fact, if you’re trying to show someone how much you care, helping them avoid sugar is the way to go. Let’s talk about sugar, how easily this siren substance can draw you in, and how you can avoid it. Then I’ll give you some suggestions to celebrate with your special someone (or yourself!) – without consequences to your health!
Our Love Affair with – and Addiction to – Sugar
Sugar just might be the most insidious drug out there – partially because so many people refuse to acknowledge the similarities between sugar and alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. But sugar is addictive, and can cause just as many health problems as these other substances.
American culture is infused with the idea that sugar is an essential part of life. In good times and bad, whether celebrating or consoling ourselves, we turn to sweets. We know that it doesn’t make us feel well. We feel sluggish and bloated after indulging too much, but even then we find it nearly impossible to resist the sweet taste of sugar.
That sounds like addiction to me, and current brain research supports the theory. Studies have shown that consumption of sugar can cause chemical changes in the brain that mirror what happens when other addictive substances are consumed. This suggests that, just like with other addictions, some people may have a predisposition for becoming physically addicted to sugar.
How Sugar Impacts Health
Even if you aren’t ultra sensitive or addicted to sugar, the health impacts of consuming too much should give you pause. I recently wrote an article about food, in which I shared a story about one weekend of indulgence, and the significant impact it had on some crucial enzymes in my body. The reason I shared this story is to illustrate how quickly overindulgence can cause real problems.
But an even bigger problem is when sugar is a regular part of your diet. That’s when health concerns can accumulate into chronic conditions that take substantially longer to heal. Sugar consumption can lead to obesity; increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer; depression; lethargy; kidney disease; dental health issues; and even cognitive decline and cellular aging! That’s a lot of good reasons to start being more aware of how much sugar you are putting in your body!
It’s Become So Hard to Avoid Sugar
It’s not just on holidays that sugar permeates our culture (though it’s certainly more visible then). Food manufacturers have becoming increasingly deft at hiding added sugars in products, using any number of names that all mean the same thing: sugar! Read the labels on the products you have in your cupboards; you just might be shocked at how many contain some form of added sugar. Processed foods are notoriously full of sugar (and other chemicals you shouldn’t put in your body). In fact, some sources say there are added sugars in almost three-quarters of processed foods. And with more than 60 names, you may not be able to identify these sugars with a quick glance!
With sugar so pervasive in the food we eat it can be extremely difficult to stick to expert recommendations. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that less than 5% of an adult’s daily calories should come from added sugar or natural sugars in honey, syrups and fruit juice. That means that a 2,000 calorie diet would have an ideal intake of 25 grams of these sugars. Unfortunately, the average American consumes far more than these suggested amounts at 19.5 teaspoons (85 grams) per day. Your liver just can’t keep up with this level of consumption. When you consistently burden your liver in this way you might well find yourself with chronic metabolic disease.
How to Change Your Sugar Eating Habits – Avoid Sugar Year Long!
What I’ve covered so far on sugar makes those Valentine’s chocolates a little less appealing, doesn’t it? I’ll give you some ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day in a minute, but first, let’s talk about how you can change your sugar habits year round.
Think Twice About Impulsive Indulgence
Sweet displays are everywhere right now, but just because you see something doesn’t mean you have to eat it. Avert your eyes and walk on by. Let people in the office know you’re avoiding sugar, and steer clear of open candy dishes or platters of cookies in the break room.
If you receive a sweet treat as a gift, remind yourself that doesn’t mean you have to eat it immediately. Plan your indulgences so that you know that you’re making a choice, rather than eating on auto-pilot. And don’t be afraid to let your loved ones know that you’d prefer some quality time over a box of chocolates!
When you do choose to indulge, make sure it’s worth it – a single piece of quality dark chocolate can be so much more satisfying than a bland, mass produced commercial candy bar that has more artificial ingredients than real cocoa.
Abandon Sugary Drinks
You may be in the habit of grabbing a quick soda from the vending machine, or a mocha latte at the corner coffee shop on your way into the office. Stop and think about this! Do you really want to be getting twice the daily recommended amount of added sugar in one drink? That’s exactly what’s happening when you have one 12-ounce can of soda, which contains 11 teaspoons of added sugar! Research has also shown that over time, drinking just one soda per day can raise the risk of diabetes by 26%. Water, seltzer, and herbal teas are all much better options that will keep you well hydrated without the sugar overload.
Eat Whole Foods
With so many unhealthy ingredients lurking in processed foods, it’s pretty easy to see that whole, natural foods are a better choice. If you can’t understand the ingredients label, you’re better off not putting it in your body. The most nutritious food comes from natural sources like whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish, and lean organic meats. Marketing techniques are designed to make things look and sound appealing, and what they bill as “health foods” are often filled with things you should avoid. It can be very confusing to sort out what’s real, and what is marketing hype, but don’t be fooled! Whole foods that don’t require a label are your best bet – and they taste better too!
Get Your Sweet Fix Through Fruits and Vegetables
Cravings for something sweet can be insistent, but there’s a better way to find satisfaction. Whole fruits and vegetables are sweet and delicious, and don’t carry the same risks as treats filled with added sugars. The fiber in fruits and vegetables slows the processing of sugar, making it easier on your liver and pancreas. And fruits and vegetables have plenty of valuable nutrients that processed foods just don’t have.
Try Products with Xylitol
If you really need something that feels indulgent, seek out products that contain xylitol, a natural sugar substitute. I offer Purely Paleo Chocoloate and Coconut Bliss snack bars in my store. You can also find a product called Ice Chips candy, made with xylitol, which come in enough flavors to satisfy any craving!
Healthy Expressions of Love
I don’t want you to think I’m some kind of Valentine’s Day Grinch by telling you to – let’s be honest – stop doing or eating what makes you feel good. But there are many ways to feel good that don’t involve sugar!
I know how good it can feel to let someone know how much you love them – or to receive tokens of love from someone special. And you don’t need to express your love with candy, cookies, or other sweets. Here’s a quick list of options to try instead:
- Flowers or a potted plant to care for. These are a great gift idea! Not only are flowers and plants beautiful to look at, but they will help remind your loved ones of you each time they look at them – far longer than it takes to pop a chocolate in their mouth!
- Planned quality time. Take time to really connect with your partner. Give them your undivided attention for an hour or two while you take a hike, go out dancing, or cuddle by a fireplace.
- Special written words. Find a card that expresses how you feel, or a small book of poems that can be read over and over again.
- Have fun together! Buy tickets to an event you know they’ll love – a concert, theatre production, or sporting event are all great choices.
Don’t Let Valentine’s Day Derail Your Health
With all of the holidays and special events that come up in modern culture – and all the marketing hype that accompany them – it can be difficult to do what we know is best for our bodies. When everyone around you is offering treats, and urging you do indulge, finding a new mindset can be especially challenging. But don’t give up – it can be done!
It may take some time, but step by step you can slowly change your habits. Try cutting out one familiar processed food each week, until you don’t even miss them anymore. If you choose to splurge, have one thing, not a weekend full of treats.
When you pay attention to how your body feels, you’ll know just what a difference healthy eating can make. This Valentine’s Day give yourself – and your loved ones – the most amazing gift of all; the gift of feeling great!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD