Sugar might be the world’s most popular addictive substance. We love it, especially during the holidays. Unfortunately, in addition to being addictive, sugar is bad for your health. The more sugar you eat, the more resistant your body becomes to insulin. This puts you at a higher risk for diabetes. High sugar intake has also been implicated as a risk factor for heart disease, high cholesterol, and even dementia.
If these long-term risks aren’t enough to curb your craving, studies have shown that an intake of 75 grams of sugar lowers immune response for several hours. That might sound like a lot, but one can of soda contains 40 grams of sugar, and low-fat flavored yogurt can contain 47 grams.
Cutting back on sugar has always been a good health choice, but now it may be more critical than ever. Diabetes and heart problems are risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19, and you don’t want to be impairing your immune system during a pandemic.
The holidays are coming up, and with fewer social gatherings this year, you might still find yourself tempted to sit at home and eat sugary foods. Here’s how to enjoy your holiday season without harming your health:
Make a Plan
And stick to it. Before you go to a holiday gathering (or out to do your shopping for your at-home holiday), think about what foods you have to eat to enjoy the season and which ones you could skip. Maybe you have to have a slice of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving but won’t feel too deprived if you avoid the marshmallow yams. Or instead of thinking about specific foods you can’t live without, you could allow yourself to splurge during a specific time period, like Christmas Day or the second night of Hannuka. It would be best if you also defined what a “splurge” is so you don’t end up making yourself sick during your splurge time.
The next time you attend a holiday gathering (maybe next year), keep in mind that going on a full or partially full tummy might keep you from gorging on sweets. If the event is a potlatch, you could bring a dish that suits your dietary goals, so you know there will be something you can eat. Remember that alcoholic beverages and other drinks like cider and eggnog, are high in sugar and should count against your sugar intake for the night.
Focus on Moderation
Our problems with food often have more to do with how we are eating than with what we are eating. Try cutting out the big problem foods (like soda) and then eating others in smaller portions. It may help to think about why we eat. By this, I mean that we have to eat to get the nutrition and energy that our bodies require. Donuts, pie, cookies, and other sugary treats usually don’t contain much nutrition; we eat them for the flavor. Since that’s the case, you only need enough of that treat to enjoy the flavor. Slow down and be mindful of your eating, and you will realize that three bites of pie can be just as satisfying as a whole piece. Eating like this can also allow you to enjoy a wider variety of sweets during the holidays without overdoing it.
Be especially careful about liquid sugar. Sugary drinks are easy to overdo. They are often flavored with citrus notes that cut the sweet taste and make it impossible to tell that you are taking in several large spoonfuls of sugar. If you must have some cider or soda, have a small glass and drink plenty of water to mitigate the sugar’s effects on your system.
Alcoholic beverages are another sneaky source of sugar. Many flavorings used in mixed drinks are just high fructose corn syrup mixed with flavors and food dye. Straight spirits or small amounts of wine will be better for your sugar goals, and of course, moderation with any kind of alcohol is always important.
Be Open About Your Health Goals
No one wants to feel like the bummer of the party who’s always going on about their diet, but it’s important to let people know why you aren’t eating the dish they brought. Saying that your doctor has told you to be careful about sugar can be helpful. This will avoid giving offense and make it clear that your health is a priority. Many people now know about the harmful effects of sugar, so you might find that your friends and family understand your decision. Some of them might even express a wish to cut back on it themselves.
Remember that no matter how people react to your dietary goals, no one has the right to bully you into eating something you don’t feel is good for you. Be polite, but firm about your need to avoid sugar. Having an ally in your life who is trying to do the same thing can be helpful. You can hold each other accountable, and if they are at your gatherings, a diet buddy can help you feel less like the odd person out.
Aim to Replace Instead of Avoid
Many healthy foods contain sugar. Whole fruit can help to satisfy your sweet tooth while also adding nutrients and fiber to your diet. Dark chocolate contains less sugar than milk chocolate and has antioxidants and vitamins. In moderation, foods like these can be part of a healthy, low sugar diet.
Try making your favorite holiday treat using a stevia baking mix instead of regular sugar. This product is a mixture of the sweet extract of the stevia plant and regular sugar. It reduces the amount of sugar in the recipe while providing the sweetness you crave. You could also try recipes that call for naturally sweet foods like dates. Avoid chemical sugar substitutes, and don’t assume that products like coconut sugar or agave are healthier than regular table sugar. Chemical substitutes may cause other health problems if used over time, and sugar is sugar as far as your body is concerned, no matter what plant it’s derived from.
Often homemade versions of your favorite treats will contain less sugar (and fewer chemical additives) than packaged store-bought versions. You may be able to enjoy your holiday favorites in a healthier way by baking them yourself.
Don’t Focus on Perfection
Look at the big picture of your diet. Use an online calculator or consult a nutritionist to determine how many calories you need to maintain a healthy weight. Try to eat a nutritious, well-rounded diet. A sugary treat a few nights a week as part of an otherwise healthy diet is perfectly OK.
Remember that sugar is addictive, and like with any addiction, relapse is a part of recovery. If you’ve been eating a high sugar diet, your first few days or weeks of cutting back will be the hardest part. After that, it will get easier as your body adjusts. Take it one day at a time, and don’t feel like one splurge has wrecked your whole plan. It’s OK to enjoy the special foods of the holidays; try to find a balance between enjoyment and health, so you don’t feel too deprived.
The FDA recommends that men eat no more than 9 grams of added sugar per day and women no more than 6. “Added sugar” means sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in food. These are reasonable goals to aim for, but you may have to get there gradually. Even a decrease from 80 grams a day to 40 grams a day will positively impact your health, so be patient with yourself.
Many people can benefit from professional nutritional counseling. At Allstar Chiropractic, we can help you define and meet your nutritional goals, without ruining your holidays.