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Sure, you know sugar is present in every slice of pumpkin pie and every thickly-frosted holiday cookie. But simply being aware of sugar-laden foods doesn’t mean you’re on top of your sugar intake. In a typical day, the average person consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar – well above the recommended limit of 6 teaspoons – often without even realizing it. And when we’re surrounded by seasonal sweets and our favorite traditions and foods during the holidays, that 17 teaspoons can quickly (and sneakily!) become much more.
I asked Jesse Lane Lee, CNP and holistic nutritionist, for her top tips to keep sneaky sugars from creeping into your daily meals, snacks, and holiday treats from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Here’s how to spot sugars in common ingredients and prepared foods when keeping an eye on your sugar intake.
Sneaky Sugars Aren’t Just an Issue During the Holidays
While sugar becomes almost impossible to avoid starting with Halloween candy in October and stretching into January after the start of the new year, sneaky added sugars aren’t solely an ingredient worthy of your attention during the holiday season.
“Sneaky sugars are an issue all year round because excess sugar consumption can lead to weight gain, acne, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation,” Lee explains.
So, why is sugar so often pinpointed as particularly problematic when holiday festivities roll around? “Over the holidays, we tend to eat more obvious sweets (I’m looking at you, sugar cookies and gingerbread men!). Since we are eating more sugar than usual around the holidays, it’s helpful to pay attention to the sneaky sugars we are also eating,” Lee says.
How much sugar is too much? “The amount of sugar you can eat daily greatly depends on your total caloric intake, activity level, and so many other things,” Lee notes. “It’s difficult to say exactly how much sugar is too much. The American Heart Association recommends not exceeding 37.5g/day for men and 25g/day for women. For context, a gingerbread latte has 50g of sugar.”
Not All Sugar is Equal – or Equally Worthy of Concern
The sugars you get from different foods aren’t identical, and that makes some sugars better – or worse – when it comes to their nutritional value.
Natural sugar found in whole foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, is a great example of sugar that offers nutritional benefits. “I never worry about the sugar I get from fruit because it’s paired with fiber, which slows the digestion of the sugar into the bloodstream, causing a minimal spike in blood sugar levels. Fruit also contains antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and a ton of nutrients,” Lee explains.
But when you’re eating packaged, processed foods or foods with low nutrient-density, that’s when sugar can be worthy of concern. “The sugar I do worry about is processed sugar or added sugar found in so many of our foods,” Lee notes.
Make Swaps and Substitutions When Baking Holiday Treats
Because not all sugars are created equal, especially in their nutritional value, an easy way to reduce the processed, added sugar in your holiday snacks, desserts, and other dishes is to swap in something other than refined white sugar.
And you don’t have to give up sugar completely! There are other varieties of sugar that have less of an impact on your blood sugar and can be a more health-minded choice. “One of my favorite swaps for baking is coconut sugar,” says Lee. “Coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 50, whereas table sugar has a glycemic index of 65. It’s easy to swap 1:1 in baking.”
However, coconut sugar – while it has a nutritional benefit – isn’t the most nutritious swap you can use. “If you’re really looking for a healthier source of sweetness, pure stevia (the green powdered kind) and monk fruit extract are a better place to start experimenting,” Lee points out.
Holiday-Themed Foods Are Often the Biggest Sugar Offenders
When you’re scanning a holiday spread and wondering what might have the most sugar, it’s easy: Look for the sweet treats! “The holiday dessert table is a dead giveaway for added sugars!” Lee explains.
But it’s not just the homemade holiday cookies and cakes that are likely full of added sugars (and sugars in general). Many holiday-themed, or holiday-flavored, treats are culprits, too. “You also need to watch out for holiday cocktails, hot chocolate, and fancy coffees,” Lee says. “[These] are often extremely high in sugar and contain no fiber to buffer the release of the sugar into your bloodstream.”
Keep an Eye Out for Sugar Content in Store-Bought Staples, Too
Whether you’re cooking and hosting or simply grocery shopping throughout the holiday season, you should take a close look at the everyday foods and ingredients you’re buying. While it’s important to watch the sugar you’re getting from all those sugar cookies, peppermint mochas, and gingerbread treats, it’s also important to remember that sugars can sneak into every single meal you eat.
How common are sneaky sugars? Well, as Lee explains, they’re so common you probably don’t even realize it: “Sugar is added to so many savory things you find at grocery stores. Anything that is labeled ‘low-fat’ is usually high in sugar or artificial sweeteners because they have to make up for the loss in flavor that happens when you remove the fat. Other savory places you can find surprisingly high amounts of sugar include beef jerky, salad dressing, pasta sauce, BBQ sauce, ketchup, pre-made soup, and canned baked beans.”
To limit these everyday sugars, “Always read the labels and look for the serving size, sugar content, and the sugar source of packaged foods,” Lee suggests.
Opt for Homemade Over Store-Bought As Much As Possible
Lastly, when you’re trying to decide what’s worth digging into at a holiday party or dinner, homemade is usually a better bet if you’re hoping to keep sugar intake low.
“When cooking at home, you can control the amount and type of sugar you use in recipes,” Lee points out. While other guests may not have worried about the sugar content in their homemade dishes, odds are you’re likely to find more balance in homemade treats or, at the very least, have options that contain less sugar than their store-bought counterparts.
Featured recipe: Chocolate Peppermint Naked Cake