How to Avoid Hidden Sugars During the Holidays

This is not a post about healthy holiday recipes. It is not a post about how to stick to portion control at the holiday buffet (although we do have one about that too). The holidays are a time where people cook up a storm and put time, love, and care into creating delicious and yes, indulging, meals and desserts. And we believe that we all have a right to enjoy these holiday goodies and to indulge in what the season has to offer!

Now, what that does not mean is that we should mindlessly munch on empty not-so-great calories, especially if they involve sugar and sweeteners. What we eat should be intentional and should be worth it. When we start to over-indulge on sweets, it kicks into motion a vicious cycle that creates more sugar cravings. What happens is your body produces a bunch of insulin to metabolize that load of sugar you just ate, then once the insulin does its job, your blood sugar drops and that creates the craving for more sugar. So…if you indulge those cravings, your physiological (and emotional) response might just tip the scale from the holidays being a joyful delicious occasion to an uncomfortable guilty one. Just because we are surrounded by sugar doesn’t mean we have to waste our taste buds on mediocre processed sweets.

If you do start to have cravings, even if you haven’t had any sugar, pay attention to the cause of your cravings to determine whether they’re from physical hunger or thirst, dyspepsia or are stress and emotional related. One of the newer theories about food cravings is that “bad” gut bacteria send signals to your nervous and endocrine system, prompting you to eat food that contains the nutrient the bacteria needs, often being sugar.

Below are some tips for how to indulge this holiday season – with your health intact – and how to avoid wasting your calories on hidden sugars and compulsive craving-feeding.

  1. To maintain healthy blood sugar levels and decrease sugar cravings, eat enough healthy, nutrient-rich food regularly, and don’t go long periods of time without eating. Have healthy foods and snacks on hand. Eat plenty of protein.
  2. Avoid sweeteners that tend to exacerbate cravings for sugar: fructose is found in concentrated amounts in high fructose corn syrup and agave. Artificial sweeteners may actually perpetuate your sugar craving.
  3. Fruit contains a natural form of fructose, so overloading on fruit isn’t necessarily a key to staying healthy. Dried fruit contains even more concentrated amounts of fructose than fresh fruit, and canned fruit may be colorful and pretty but is usually drenched in sugar water and highly processed.
  4. Sugars can be “hidden” in many foods that you wouldn’t naturally think of as desserts or high-sugar foods. Watch out for sweet potatoes or yams that stick to eachother (they’re usually drenched in maple syrup or brown sugar), tomato or pasta sauce, ketchup, sweet salad dressings (think honey dijon), canned cranberry sauce, yogurt that comes with fruit, white bread and rolls, stuffing, and of course baked goods. Many hot holiday drinks are also high in sugar, e.g.flavored coffees, hot chocolate, mulled wine, cider.
  5. Alcohol also contains sugar, and if you’re drinking cocktails, many mixers like fruit juice contain high levels of sugar.
  6. Keep in mind that low fat and “diet” foods often contain more sugar to help improve their taste. Also be wary of ‘sugar-free’ foods. These often contain synthetic sweeteners. Although they taste sweet, they don’t help curb a sweet tooth as they tend to send confusing messages to the brain, which can lead to overeating.
  7. If you’re baking for the holidays, you can reduce the sugar in most recipes by about 1/3 without ruining the recipe. You can use a sugar alcohol like Xylitol in baking (1:1 ratio to sugar for recipe conversion) to decrease the total amount of sugar.
  8. If you’re diabetic or watching your carb intake, how many carbs you eat at a meal determines your blood sugar level in response to that meal. Start your meal with low calorie veggies and lean protein, then move to the sweet indulgences. If you limit other carbs during the meal you can spend some of your “carb budget” on desserts. Take a smaller portion or try the “three bite rule” by taking three bites then put the dessert aside for a few minutes. You may not come back to it as you discover just a few tastes can be satisfying.

If you do find yourself eating too many carbs or too much sugar, be gentle with yourself, let go of the guilt and keep trying. Remember, as I always say, it is not what you eat between Thanksgiving and New Years that counts the most, but your healthy habits between New Years and Thanksgiving.

DSC01005Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.

Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at

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  1. Good Job.

    I thought that one needs to be careful eating grapefruit as it offsets many medications.

    1. Hi Inez, yes that’s true. You should definitely check the drug interactions on any medication you are taking as grapefruit can either multiply or diminish the effect!