Reining in the Holiday Sugar High

Yes thanks, I’d love a cookie. Oh, they’re so small, I’ll have another. But wait, that one’s broken, which means it doesn’t have any calories, right?

When it comes to food choices, Americans (myself included) are the epitome of rationalization, especially during the holiday season when sugary treats and snacks abound.

Between the attitude and expectation of indulgence (hey, the holidays only come once a year!), the desire to provide a festive atmosphere, and the convenience of finding and buying the ingredients (or pre-made treats), it’s little wonder that Americans love sugar. And not just during the holidays. But our predilection for sweets may not totally be a conscious choice.

What Causes “Our Sweet Tooth?”

Attribute it to addiction, says a recent National Geographic article on sugar (“Sugar Love: A Not So Sweet Story,” by Rich Cohen, August 2013).

Turns out sugar, that delightful stuff, stimulates the same pleasure centers as heroin and cocaine. And, results from a recent study at Connecticut College (which involved lab rats and Oreo cookies) points towards the same conclusion. Oreo cookies? Yes, Oreos. (Student-faculty research shows Oreos are just as addictive as drugs in lab rats,” October 15, 2013.)

Why should you be concerned?

Well, according to the National Geographic article, in addition to the whole addiction thing, sugar just isn’t good for your health. Another name for the table sugar you put in your coffee each morning, or bake cookies with, is sucrose, and sucrose is equal parts glucose and fructose (fructose is found naturally in fruit).

Fructose gets processed in the liver. Big amounts of it, like in the high fructose corn syrup found in treats such as soft drinks, candy, and store-bought baked goods, is a big problem.

Look at it this way: the liver processes fructose, and when there’s too much fructose the liver makes triglycerides, a kind of fat. The fat gets pushed out into the bloodstream and damages blood vessels and organs. The blood vessel and organ damage can result in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

But here’s the kicker: according to the National Geographic article, “the impact on health of sucrose and HFCS [high fructose corn syrup] appears to be similar.”

That’s an important point since it means the white “table sugar” I use to make my famous lemon bars with can apparently have the same negative health effects as the high fructose corn syrup I’ve been diligently trying to avoid. That information gave me pause.

So what to do in anticipation of the holidays and those sweet, sugary treats we all love?

Here are some suggestions to help you rein in the sugar high, and not just over the holidays, but all year long:

  • Plan ahead for the occasional indulgence, like over the holidays, so your body doesn’t get overwhelmed with processing sugary treats.
  • Read labels (ingredients are listed according to amount in the product, so if fructose or sugar is listed first that means it’s the main ingredient). Sugar is added to a lot of packaged foods including ketchup, barbecue sauce, pasta sauce, and lunchbox size portions of fruit and applesauce. A number of food brands are offering sugar-free options, so look to see what’s offered on the store shelves.
  • Ask questions about added sugar, especially when you eat out at restaurants and fast food places.
  • Soda is one of the biggest culprits of added sugar in the diet, so look to replace that beverage with something more healthy, like water or fruit juice (with no sugar added).
  • Sugar substitutes may be an option, particularly if weight loss or diabetes is already a concern.
  • Kids copy what their parents do, so being a positive role model in terms of overall sugar consumption will help your kids’ health for the short and long term.
  • Moderation is key. Keep an eye on the “big picture” – your health – and be mindful of not just how much sugar you eat, but how often, too.

References

Cohen, Rich. “Sugar Love: A Not So Sweet Love Story.”National Geographic. National Geographic, 08 2013. Web. 20 Nov 2013. .

“Connecticut College News: Student-faculty research suggests Oreos can be compared to drugs of abuse in lab rats.” Connecticut College. Connecticut College, 15 Oct 2013. Web. 20 Nov 2013. >.

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