Usually, around the end of October, the sugary treats make their monstrous appearance. It marks the beginning of the holiday season—the time of year where many people toss their healthy snacks aside and reach for sugary treats.
Whether it be candy, cookies, pies or drinks, there are just so many sugary temptations that it’s hard to say, “No, thank you.”
I mean, you can’t say no to grandma’s sweet potato pie or those sugar cookies with buttercream frosting you made with the kids. It’d be rude, right?
Sugar: The addiction is real
Eating too much sugar with no inhibition may feel good in the moment but it can snowball into a full-blown sugar rollercoaster of ups and downs. Your body immediately feels the effects of the sugar rush and then minutes to hours later the crash and burn (Ugh, I shouldn’t have eaten that!).
Sugar is addictive and is extremely hard to break once that sweet sugary cookie hits your lips, but it can also have negative consequences to your health.
“Too much sugar can lead to obesity, increased heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression,” said Jennifer Oikarinen, a registered dietitian with Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix. “It can also affect your skin, energy levels and, of course, your dental health.”
It isn’t just sugary desserts
Fudge, cookies and eggnog are obvious causes of too much sugar in the diet, but there are a lot of hidden sugars in our normal diets to be aware of too, Oikarinen said.
“Alcohol, salad dressings and even diet soda can play havoc when it comes to sugar consumption,” she said. “The aspartame (artificial sweeteners) found in many diet drinks can heighten the sense of what sweetness should be. It affects how you taste things.”
Who doesn’t love their holiday Starbucks treat? They may satisfy a sweet tooth, but they too can be loaded with sugar and empty calories.
“For example, a peppermint mocha may be a holiday staple for some, but one 16-ounce serving contains more sugar than a can of Mountain Dew (more than a ¼ cup!),” Oikarinen said. “And since we tend to indulge more around the holidays, what may be a reasonable serving size by itself, multiplies as we allow ourselves to drink and eat more.”
Stop the sugar cravings
You may want to go cold turkey during the holidays, but this can potentially lead to other unhealthy behaviors and some pretty gnarly withdrawals.
“It’s common to experience headaches, agitation, irritability, depressed mood and even symptoms of nausea and muscle cramps,” Oikarinen said. “But once you stop going overboard with sugary treats and diet sodas, your taste buds can recalibrate to better appreciate the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables.”
Hey, the holiday season can’t be all about restrictions. With a little preparation, you can ring in the New Year feeling a bit fuller of cheer—and not sugar.
Here are a few ways to keep your sugar intake in check and support your overall health.
Fill your plate with whole foods
You know those red, green and yellow items you have hiding in your fridge? And no, we’re not talking about those rainbow-colored candies! We’re talking about all those beautiful, colorful fruits and vegetables and protein-rich foods which are just waiting to be eaten.
Choose mostly whole or minimally-processed foods that are good quality sources of fiber, protein and healthy fats. Eating healthy portions of these can help you feel fuller and make you less likely to seek out sweet treats. Think nuts, avocados, roasted vegetables, salmon and eggs.
“Eggs are a breakfast MVP,” said Oikarinen. “They’re an excellent source of selenium, B12, vitamin B2 and are one of the rare sources of natural vitamin D. They are also a good source of choline, which is important for brain function, gene regulation and heart health.”
Drink plenty of water
Have you ever noticed you’re super thirsty after a sugary or salty treat? Sugar and salt in excess can trigger dehydration. In the case of sugar, your liver can struggle to break down glycogen (a storage form of sugar) when you’re dehydrated. So, you’ll inevitably crave more sugar.
Aim to drink a minimum of 60 ounces of water per day, and even a glass or two before a meal to help stave off a craving or two. This will ensure you’re well-hydrated.
Use natural sweeteners when possible
Added sugar is hiding in unexpected places. Be vigilant about avoiding things like high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, rice syrup and caramel. Packaged foods tend to be high in sugar as well—whether sweet or savory.
Instead of that candy bar, maybe opt for a small piece of dark chocolate or a fresh piece of fruit. Pears are really great this time of year! [Here are other healthy snacking ideas the next time your sweet cravings strike.]
If you’re baking at home, opt for natural sweeteners like raw honey, fresh fruit, maple syrup or monk fruit.
Don’t drink sugar
Whether it’s a deliciously sweet cocktail or a sugar-laden beverage, the empty calories and added sugar will add no nutritional value.
Instead, stick to sparkling waters or spice up your water with slices of fresh fruit and herbs. As a bonus, add lemon slices to your water or tea. “Along with providing 130% of your daily recommended vitamin C, lemons are also a good source of B vitamin folate, along with calcium and potassium,” Oikarinen said.
If you’re sipping alcohol, low- or no-sugar options include dry wine or white spirits. But, as a reminder, drink responsibly.
The holidays are stressful, and many of us may be eating on the go or nibbling over an hors d’oeuvres or dessert table. Take the time to slow time and think about what you are putting into your mouth. Ask yourself, “Am I really hungry or would a glass of water help right now?” Intuitive eating can help you eat what’s best for your body and your mind.
Take care of yourself
Avoid holiday burnout by making good choices to maintain self-care between the hustle and bustle of the season. Remember to get plenty of sleep, get regular exercise and take some time for self-care—whether that be meditation, self-reflection or just taking the time to breathe in some fresh air.
Be kind to yourself
If you overdid it at the office holiday party, don’t beat yourself up. Your health can survive this mistake. Indulging every once in a while and being a part of the moment that includes sugar is part of the joy of being alive.
However, if you find you’re struggling to control your sugar intake or your compulsive eating, contact your health care provider or licensed behavioral health specialist who can help guide you.