Do you love the holiday season? As autumn transitions to winter, there are so many great reasons to bring family and friends together to celebrate. We all lead such busy lives, and sometimes the holiday season is the only time we take to truly connect with the people we love. But all too often we also use the holiday season as an excuse to reconnect with foods we love, but that we know aren’t great for our health. Sugar consumption spikes around the holidays, and so many women fall into the trap of over indulging without even noticing!
Our homes and work spaces are flooded with sweets, starting at Halloween and continuing right through the new year. Beautiful boxes of sweet treats are delivered, gifts from far away family and friends. Holiday buffet tables are laden with gorgeous cakes, cookies, and candy.
For so many women, sweets are an integral part of the holiday season. They can evoke wonderful memories from years past, act as a creative outlet for women who enjoy baking and decorating but never allow themselves time except during the holidays. And there’s no denying these sweet treats taste good — after all, making things taste better is what sugar is all about!
How Much Added Sugar is Too Much?
The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their added sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day. For men, that number jumps to 9 teaspoons per day. Reports on sugar consumption vary quite a bit, depending on the source, but with average consumption ranging from 17-22 teaspoons per day, that’s still significantly more than the recommendation. and the USDA reports that for 2013-14, only 42% of Americans met the guideline of limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories. That means more than half of the American population is consuming more added sugar than recommended! There does seem to be a reduction in sugar consumption in recent years, and that’s good news. But we still have a long way to go, and the holidays only exacerbate the issue.
Even if you’re conscientious about avoiding soft drinks, desserts, and candy, you could be getting far more added sugar than you realize. You might not give a second thought to the sugar content in salad dressing, pasta sauce, or bread – but you should! It all adds up, and with the abundance of treats floating around this time of year, you might put yourself well over the recommended daily amount no matter how careful you are.
The Addictive Qualities of Sugar
For some people, sugar can cause the same chemical reactions in the brain as other addictive substances. If you haven’t heard of sugar sensitivity, I urge you to do some reading. There’s a lot of recent research that suggests that sugar can produce symptoms of addiction, and there are very clear parallels between sugar and other drugs.
Like any addiction, the “high” feelings that result from eating sugary treats reel women in, prompting them to want more and more. Sugar lights up those pleasure centers, releasing mood boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin, helping us relax or boosting our energy when it’s most needed. The problem, of course, is in the crash.
Sugar and Holidays: A Recipe for Disaster When We Relax Our Standards
So many of my friends, as well as my patients, tell me that they are “good” all year, just waiting for the holidays so they can set aside their no sugar rule for a month or two. And so many of them tell me after the fact that they regret that decision! They find that after indulging in sweets for a few weeks, they just want more and more. Their sugar addiction spirals them into a vicious cycle, and the cravings just won’t quit!
I know the trap is so easy to fall into — and some traditions don’t help the situation any. We are surrounded by people who do things year after year that encourage us to let our rules slide. even found myself doing things that I knew weren’t healthy!
Year after year, I made dozens and dozens of cookies and breads for the holidays. While many of my recipes are low on sugar, focusing instead on dense nuts and rich butter thanks to my European heritage, I had a few that were loaded with sugar. One recipe called for two cups (that’s 96 teaspoons) of white sugar! One day, as I carefully poured all that sugar into the batter, a thought struck me. What am I doing? After all the years I’d spent educating women about the many ways in which sugar negatively affects the body, keeping very little in my own home, why was I making those unhealthy cookies for the people I loved?
Since that day I have tried baking healthier treats for every occasion. But I have to admit it is hard for most of us to find the perfect balance – ways in which we can feel good about our choices, and about the way we feel after eating.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy a holiday cookie or two. Unless you have sugar sensitivity, an occasional indulgence won’t hurt you. I recommend the 80/20 rule — if you are eating really well 80% of the time, you have a little leeway the other 20% of the time. So how can you keep yourself on track, when temptation is everywhere?
Sugar and Holidays Don’t Have to Go Hand in Hand
I understand it’s tough to change the way you eat, especially when long standing traditions around sugar and holiday celebrations are at play. Here are some tips that can help you resist temptation. As an added bonus, some of these tips will help you keep your friends and family healthier too!
Bring a Healthy Sweet Treat to Share
If you’re going to a holiday gathering, and you know there will be tray upon tray of sugary treats, why not bring a healthier option that you know is also sweet and delicious? There are so many things you can try that have the sweet taste without all that sugar. Meringue cookies made with xylitol instead of sugar are a great option – and they’re gluten free, and have some protein too! A big beautiful bowl of fruit with freshly whipped cream sprinkled with nuts is also a beautiful addition to any dessert table, you can use xylitol to sweeten the cream too!
Eat Protein or Fiber Along with Your Sweet Treats
When you decide to indulge, you can help your body avoid the stressful effects of sugar by pairing sweets with fiber or protein. Both help slow the insulin spike and make it less likely that the sugar or carbs you’ve eaten will be stored as fat. Keeping that potential spike in check will help avoid the sugar crash that might bring you right back to the cookie tray!
Don’t Show Up Hungry
You’ve probably learned that going to the grocery store hungry is a bad idea. It’s all too easy for things you’d never consider when feeling full to end up in the cart – and in your cupboards! The same rule applies when going to a party. If you walk in ravenous, you never know what might end up on your plate!
Take your time, and make sure you’re eating mindfully. Savor the food you’re putting in your mouth, and remember that dessert doesn’t have to immediately follow a meal. Try sitting around a table enjoying good conversation and a cup of herbal tea or glass of seltzer before dessert. You might realize that you’re already satiated, and don’t want dessert at all!
You Can Eat Just One
Remember, I think it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a treat now and then. But you don’t need to try everything that’s offered. Mull over the selection and choose the one that looks most appealing. Choose a small piece, or cut a larger one in half. Savor every bite of your treat – really taste the flavors and feel the texture on your tongue. Eat slowly. Think about enjoying another treat at another time!
Ask Someone to Join You in a Short Walk
Connection is what we most often crave when attending social gatherings, but sitting or standing in the same place for too long can cause you to make choices you’ll later regret – especially if you’re standing next to a buffet table. Ask someone to join you in a 10 to 15 minute walk. You’ll get the connection you want, without extra sugar!
Change Your Mindset About Sugar and Holidays to Enjoy the Season and Feel Fantastic
The holiday season is magical for so many people, but it can also be incredibly stressful. Abandoning healthy habits can increase the stress and toll the holidays take on your body. Traditions are a special part of life, but moderation is key. Selecting your indulgences carefully and mindfully will keep you feeling great, and make those moments that you do treat yourself even better!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD