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A Condiment, Not a Diet Staple
Navigating holiday foods is easier if we rethink our sweets

The holidays are upon us, along with the onslaught of candy canes and chocolate, breakfast strudels and eggnog. In short, it’s a tough time to be telling friends and family to cut back on sugar. But while that may seem impossible at this time of year, we can get a lot closer to balance if we shift the way we think about sweets.

Don’t get me wrong. We all love dessert. Dessert is the reward we look forward to for finishing our lima beans. In fact, liking sweet things is programmed into our DNA — there are no foods in nature that are both sweet and acutely poisonous, so sweet flavors were the signal to our ancestors that a food was safe to eat. We also know that sugar stimulates the reward center of the brain, making us crave the sweet stuff even more.

The problem is that too many of us are skipping the beans and broccoli, and starting dessert first thing in the morning. Most of us would consider foods with added sugar as one of its first three ingredients as a dessert, right? But that means soda, juice drinks, sweetened coconut water, sweetened teas, flavored coffee drinks — these are all desserts. Granola is dessert. Fruit-flavored yogurt is dessert. The American Heart Association limits kids to 3-6* teaspoons, and adults to 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Yet a bowl of cereal and glass of juice can easily rack up 11 teaspoons of added sugar. A cinnamon bun can have 13 teaspoons, all by itself.

So how do we stay on track when sugar is all around us during the holidays? And how do we continue our families’ holiday traditions, while setting our children up for a lifetime of good health?

It starts with a basic shift in how we see sweet foods. Most of us wouldn’t put mustard on every food item we eat. We wouldn’t add it to our breakfast cereal and then toss an extra tablespoon into our coffee. That’s absurd – it’s a condiment, not a staple. Would you like a little coffee with your sugar? How about some salad with your dressing?

That’s exactly how we need to be thinking about sugar – as a condiment. Read the labels. If you see sugar (or any of the 61 names for it) on the ingredients list, ask yourself: is this dinner, or dessert? If it’s meant to be dinner or something to drink when you’re thirsty, put it back on the shelf and keep the sugar in the dessert pile. And if you’re baking dessert, cut out a third of the sugar in your recipe and it will actually taste better.

Then, if you’ve kept the sugar out of your drinks all day and out of your real food, go ahead, have a serving of your traditional holiday dessert. And enjoy it guilt-free, because you’ve saved up. You deserve it.

Wishing you and your family a happy and healthy holiday season!

* The AHA only specifies limits of added sugar for children age 4-8, which it sets at 4 teaspoons. The 3-6 teaspoon limit is extrapolated from the AHA guidelines for % of calories coming from added sugar, based on the AHA Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children.

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

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SugarScience is the authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health.

Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL

Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL, is a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at UCSF and director of the UCSF Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health (WATCH) Program. Dr. Lustig is a neuroendocrinologist, with basic and clinical training relative to hypothalamic development, anatomy and function.

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