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The Sweet Danger of Sugar
ways to enjoy healthier holiday fare
by Christy Ratliff

The Sweet Danger of Sugar, azurita/AdobeStock.com

Chocolate Santas, decorated cookies and other sweet confections are ingrained in our holiday traditions, yet sugary food does little to actually make us feel merry and bright in the long run.

A high-sugar diet increases the risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, inflammation, weight gain and weight-related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It can also contribute to tooth decay and acne. “Most high-sugar foods are 'treats’ and are not intended to be high in nutrition or consumed instead of healthier foods,” says Shelley Maniscalco, registered dietitian and CEO of the consulting firm Nutrition on Demand, in Arlington, Virginia. “When we have too many foods that are what we call calorie-dense versus nutrient-dense, we run the risk of displacing healthier foods, and, therefore, under-consuming key nutrients.”

This can impact mental health and impair the body’s ability to manage stress. “When we eat nutritious foods, and our gut is healthy, we obtain necessary nutrients to create neurotransmitters, which are key to optimal mental health,” explains Maggie Roney, a licensed counselor and certified functional medicine provider in Wylie, Texas. “There’s mood-stabilizing serotonin, which is a precursor for melatonin, needed for sleep; dopamine, involved in pleasure, focus and motivation; and GABA, which provides a calming effect that can help with stress and anxiety. All of these require amino acids, zinc, iron, vitamin D, magnesium, copper and B vitamins.”

Hidden sugars are often found where we least expect them.
–Ricardo Díaz

In moderation, sugar is not necessarily detrimental to our health and well-being, but differentiating between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar is key to finding a middle ground. “New changes in the food label allow consumers to more easily identify sources of sugar in foods,” Maniscalco says. “Many healthy foods naturally contain sugars, such as fructose in fruits and lactose in dairy products. These natural sugars don’t need to be avoided. When checking the label, look for amounts of added sugars and choose the options that have less.”

Foods and beverages with added sugars are now required to list the number of grams and percent daily value for added sugars on the nutrition facts label. For example, a container of yogurt with fruit on the bottom might list total sugars at 15 grams (g), including 7 g of added sugar, which means 8 g of naturally occurring sugars.

In a society long obsessed with counting calories, we may assume we’re making smart choices with low-fat, non-fat, reduced calorie or light versions of grocery items. But, the amount of added sugar is actually higher in low calorie versions of a wide variety of foods because sugar is used to compensate for the loss of flavor from fat. “Sugar tastes good and balances out other flavors, so many foods that we wouldn’t consider sweet have added sugars,” says Colleen Tewksbury, Ph.D., bariatric program manager and senior research investigator at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “Common products include pasta sauce, cereal and salad dressing. Reading food labels looking specifically for added sugars is key to finding these foods.”

“Hidden sugars are often found where we least expect them,” adds Ricardo Díaz, chef and registered dietitian nutritionist at the New York-based nonprofit Wellness in the Schools, which works to improve nutrition in school lunches. “Many savory or salty foods tend to have added sugars, such as tortilla chips, popcorn, jerky and frozen prepared foods. Check your labels and compare between products on the supermarket shelves to find the healthiest pick for you and your loved ones.”

“Often, we think of eating in 'all or nothing’ terms. When we cut out foods we enjoy, it often backfires and we end up overeating them in the end when our willpower runs out,” Maniscaclo says. “I would really encourage mindfulness in eating so that individuals can enjoy treats in moderation and feel satisfied by them so that there’s less need to over consume. Also, being physically active year-round is a great habit to get into and can create more space in the diet for treats.”

As we implement these small but significant low-sugar strategies, we’ll be rewarded with better physical and emotional health all year long. That’s something to celebrate.

Christy Ratliff is a professional health and wellness writer based in Central Florida. 

Tips to Eat Less Sugar

Chef and dietitian nutritionist Ricardo Díaz:
Whole Grains - image: marilyn barbone/AdobeStock.commarilyn barbone/AdobeStock.comSwap out fruit juice cocktails and fruit juice concentrates for whole fruits and 100 percent fruit juice. Fruit beverages rely on added sugar to provide much of their sweetness.
Choose whole grains over enriched grains. Include a variety of whole grains in your diet, such as oats, brown rice or whole-wheat pastas and breads.

To maximize fiber intake, pick products labeled “100% Whole Grains” over labels stating “Whole Grains” or “Multigrain.”

Make your own baked goods. Besides controlling the amount of sugar in your treats, baking at home is a great way to get your youngest family members involved in cooking.

Shelley Maniscalco, MPH, RD:
Apple Sauce - image: brent hofacker/AdobeStock.combrent hofacker/AdobeStock.comEat fruit. Most are naturally sweet and provide healthy nutrients without a lot of calories. As an added bonus, the fiber and water content in fruit helps with feeling satiated.

Add spices and fresh herbs. Studies show that adding them enhances flavor, and it also lowers the use of such unhealthy nutrients as added sugars, sodium and saturated fats.

Colleen Tewksbury, Ph.D., RD:
Holiday Beverages - Image: maxim khytra/AdobeStock.commaxim khytra/AdobeStock.comChoose plain yogurt, as it contains no added sugar. Top it with fresh fruit, cinnamon or nuts. Choose yogurt that contains live and active cultures, as these promote gut health and boost immunity.

Nearly a quarter of added sugars consumed come from sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and fruit drinks, even more than from desserts and sweets. A simple way of reducing added sugar is reducing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages. Three approaches are: setting a frequency goal (limit to x times per week); setting a portion goal (limit to x ounces per day); or setting a substitution goal (replace sugar-sweetened beverages with sugar-free options).

Jennifer Martin-Biggers, Ph.D., RDN:
Spoonfull Of Supplements - Image: ronstik/AdobeStock.comronstik/AdobeStock.comTo reduce sugar intake, as with any other new habit or behavior change, it’s important to set manageable goals and set new ones as you go. 

Another way to support dietary changes is through supplementation. The mineral chromium, in particular in the form of chromium picolinate, has been shown in clinical studies to reduce food cravings.

Film Suggestion:
Watch That Sugar Film, a 2014 Australian documentary/drama directed by Damon Gameau at WatchDocumentaries.com/that-sugar-film. According to New York Times film critic Daniel M. Gold, “The food-doc shelf is crowded with good-for-you movies, including Fed Up, Fast Food Nation, Food Inc. and, yes, Super Size Me. That Sugar Film is a worthy addition, entertaining while informing.”

Low- or No-Sugar Holiday Treats

Baklava Cookie Cups

Baklava Cookie Cups - image: photo provided by allrecipes.comphoto provided by allrecipes.com2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tsp orange zest
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ tsp salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup honey
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

filling and syrup:
½ cup pistachios, chopped
½ cup honey
3 Tbsp water
2 tsp orange juice
4 green cardamom pods, crushed
1 cinnamon stick

Heat oven to 350° F and grease a 24-cup mini muffin tin. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, orange zest, cardamom and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and honey for about 1-2 minutes. (The mix will look a little curdled at this point and that’s fine; scrape down the sides.) Beat in the eggs, then the vanilla. Mix in the flour in two parts. Using a cookie scoop, scoop the dough into the prepared muffin tin and bake for 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven; let sit for about 3-4 minutes before using a dowel to carefully press down in the center of each cookie to make a well. Let the cookies cool for about 15 minutes in the tin before removing to a cooling rack to cool completely. In a small saucepan over medium heat, prepare the syrup by combining the honey, water, orange juice, cardamom pods and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer and remove from the heat. Drizzle a small amount in the bottom of each cookie cup and then fill with the chopped pistachios. Drizzle more syrup on top of the filled cookie cups. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container for up to one week.

Courtesy of the National Honey Board. For more information, visit Honey.com.

Baked Apples
Baked Apple - photo provided by allrecipes.comphoto provided by allrecipes.com4 large Granny Smith baking apples
Juice of one lemon (about ¼ cup)
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ cup chopped pecans or another nut of choice
¼ cup raisins or another dried fruit of choice
1 tsp butter
¾ cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 375° F. Wash apples. Using an apple corer, remove cores and leave ½ inch of the bottom of each apple. (If using a paring knife, just cut the center core out fully.) Make the hole ¾-inch wide, and remove the seeds using a spoon. Place the cored apples in an 8-inch-by 8-inch baking dish.

Sprinkle lemon juice over apples to prevent browning. In a small bowl, combine cinnamon, chopped nuts and raisins or another dried fruit. Stuff each apple with the filling mixture. Top with a dot of butter (about ½ to ¾ tsp per apple). Add boiling water to baking pan.

Bake for 40-45 minutes until tender, but not mushy. Remove baked apples from the oven, and baste apples several times with the juice from the pan. (Apples can be baked in a muffin tin. Place muffin liners into the muffin tins, and place cored apples inside.)

Chef’s Note: Personalize the baked apples with seasonal fillings and spices, such as nutmeg, cardamom or pumpkin pie spice. For a twist, try a savory, fresh herb like rosemary or thyme.

Courtesy of Wellness in the Schools. For more information, visit WellnessInThe Schools.org.

Honey Lavender Cookies
Honey Lavender Cookies - photo provided by allrecipes.comphoto provided by allrecipes.comThis recipe was developed after lavender was accidentally weeded from the garden. These cookies are made with honey and whole-wheat flour.

yield: about 24 cookies

½ cup butter, softened
½ cup honey
1 egg
1 Tbsp lavender flowers
2 cups whole-wheat flour

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat butter in a bowl with an electric mixer until creamy. Beat honey, egg and lavender into the creamed butter until incorporated.

Stir flour, ½ cup at a time, into butter mixture until blended. Drop spoonful of batter onto the prepared baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake in preheated oven until cookies are browned on the bottom, about 15 minutes.

Courtesy of Sue B. For more information, visit AllRecipes.com.

A Dietician’s Healthy Dark Chocolate Bark
Dark Chocolate Bark - photo provided by allrecipes.comphoto provided by allrecipes.comThis dark chocolate bark recipe is holiday-themed with red, white and green toppings. Other topping options include almonds, dried fruit, sunflower, pumpkin or hemp seeds or granola.

6 oz dark chocolate
¼ cup raw pistachios
¼ cup dried cranberries
2 Tbsp shredded coconut

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Create a double boiler by placing a saucepan filled with a few inches of water and topped with a glass bowl over medium heat. Bring the water to a boil. Add two thirds of the chocolate and let melt, stirring until smooth. Take off the heat and stir in the remaining chocolate.

Pour melted chocolate onto the prepared baking tray. Spread to ⅛-inch thickness. While the chocolate is still warm, sprinkle with dried cranberries, chopped pistachios and shredded coconut. To set, place tray in the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes or in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes. Break the bark into pieces and serve. Store extra pieces at room temperature in an airtight container.

Courtesy of Jessica Bippen, MS, RD. For more information, visit HUMNutrition.com/blog.

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