OPINION: Sugar-coated holidays hold a host of health concerns
December 1st 8:32 pm | Carey Restino
Turn on your radio and you'll hear loud and clear — the holiday season is upon us, with all its bells and whistles. But it's not just the airwaves that will be assaulted this holiday season, it is our health as well.
Holidays have long been linked with food, and more specifically, sweets. This is a time for indulgence. What says the holidays more than a child with a candy cane or a plate of holiday cookies? We know it's not good for us, but it comes but once a year, right?
Well, there's reason to take a closer look at some of those super-sweet traditions. For nearly 50 years, Americans have been hearing about the dangers of consuming too much fat, from obesity to heart attacks and a host of other health problems. Now, there is evidence that while the dense calorie load of fat may not be great for you, there's another food-related danger that has been underestimated for far too long — sugar.
In a story that sounds much like the cigarette industry's cover-up of the dangers of smoking, evidence is mounting that the sugar industry knew of the links between increased sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease, as well as certain cancers, like breast cancer. In the 1960s, the sugar industry helped fund a study that pointed some of these increased risks out, but the study was mothballed and never made public, some say. According to some reports, the sugar industry's powerful lobby groups influenced everything from medical research, to a national campaign to boost cavity protection. The government instead pushed alternative ways to break up dental plaque, when what parents really needed to do was stop feeding their children so much sugar.
The tactics have worked wonders. Sugar has now woven its way into our lives to such an extent that most Americans are consuming many times the recommended six teaspoons per day, or three teaspoons for children. The average American now consumes 19.5 teaspoons of sugar a day — 66 pounds a year. Children are even more out of balance, getting a whopping 16 percent of their calories from sugar every day.
If you have a soda habit, these numbers get quickly worse. A single can of soda is almost double the recommended daily serving of sugar for adults, and three times the amount recommended for children. What's worse, it is addictive, scientists say, activating the same cravings and chemical changes in the brain as other addictive substances such as cocaine and alcohol.
Even if you don't think of having a sweet tooth, foods you think of as healthy contain a lot of sugar. Yogurt can contain as much as seven teaspoons of sugar in a single-serving container. In fact, if you do some research, you'll find that most foods, especially the convenience foods we tend to turn to when life gets busy, have more sugar added than you would like to think. A single cheeseburger from a fast food restaurant has 34 percent of the recommended adult daily intake. Feed it to a child, and they've just met their daily recommended consumption levels. And again, sometimes the healthy option is worse - a McDonald's grilled chicken sandwich has 11 grams of sugar, or 44 percent of the recommended daily intake, while salads, Asian and Mexican food can have large amounts of added sugar, too. A Subway sweet onion chicken teriyaki footlong sub has 32 grams of sugar — 128 percent of the recommended daily intake for adults. A small Dominos Hawaiian pizza? One hundred and thirty-two percent. A grande nonfat white chocolate mocha from Starbucks? Two hundred and thirty-two percent.
You get the idea. Our food is sugar-coated, and studies show that sugar can change the amount of insulin your body releases, which in turn causes your body to store more calories as fat. Insulin also affects our natural appetite suppressants, and over time, causes our brain to no longer get the message that we are full and should stop eating. All these things made sense when food was scarce, and our ancestors needed to overeat when they could to survive long periods without food. But in today's world, it's a set-up for weight gain and poor health.
All of this would be bad enough if the sugar industry hadn't known about it decades ago, but more and more information is coming forward to the contrary, indicating that the sugar lobbyists used their influence to downplay the possible health concerns of sugar. Instead, they pointed the finger at fat, blaming high-fat foods for increased heart disease and other ailments now epidemic in the United States. As products went low fat, they lost flavor, and many manufacturers turned to sugar as a way to make their products palatable again. Today, we eat 30 percent more sugar than we did three decades ago.
So how do we survive the holidays without feeling deprived or putting our bodies into an insulin crisis? One approach is to go back to the foods that our grandparents had as treats — nuts (not candied) and special fruit (pomegranates travel well).
Try cutting down on sugar in your usual recipes, like pies, and as often as possible, avoid premixed and processed products. Try flavored sparkling waters instead of soda or juice and fill up on foods that provide satisfying nutrition, like traditional subsistence foods, dried meats and smoked fish. We are lucky to live in a day and age where so many different food sources are available to us. If we choose wisely for ourselves and our children, the health impacts will stay with us long after the decorations are tucked away.