Q: I have prediabetes and have mostly avoided sugar in my diet this year. But during the holidays, I know I will likely want to splurge on an occasional seasonal dessert that I can’t get any other time of year. Do you have any advice on how to enjoy a taste of holiday treats but still mostly abstain from eating sugar?
At this time of year, we’re bombarded with the sights and smells of addictive sugary foods and beverages. Candied yams. Gingerbread. Egg nog. Apple pie. Christmas cookies and other home-baked goodies. Chocolates. Pumpkin pie. … If we aren’t careful, one sugar-loaded indulgence can lead to another and another—then some of us give into sugar for the whole season and end up sicker and heavier before the new year even begins.
More than 50 percent of Americans are estimated to be prediabetic or diabetic, and more than 60 percent of Americans over age 40 are likely to have prediabetes. Insulin resistance, which is at the core of prediabetes, doesn’t just significantly increase your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, but also your risk of cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, dementia, and depression. Keeping this information in mind, most of us should limit our sugar intake. Intellectually speaking, we may know this, but practically speaking, it’s not easy to stick to eating low sugar during the holidays.
Guidelines to Keep in Mind
To stay committed, keep reminding yourself that avoiding sugars and other refined and blood-sugar-spiking carbohydrates is the single most important thing you can do for your health. Also know that the more you avoid sugar, the better your energy levels and mood will be—and the better your clothes will fit in January!
While keeping your intention on the health, mood, and weight control benefits you’ll receive, try these ten bottom-line, sugar-smart tips:
- Consider your alternatives. If you choose to stick to a sugar-free diet during the holidays, your indulgence might be something simple with no added sugar, such as buying fresh berries and topping them with unsweetened whipped cream topped with cinnamon—or preparing pan-fried apples with cinnamon. If you find yourself in a position where you need to say no to desserts at the table, be polite and complementary. Say “I avoid sugar for health reasons,” then focus on the connection and conversation you have with others.
- Eat regular, balanced, sugar-free meals based on whole foods. This means protein, non-starchy vegetables, and good fats such as nuts and seeds, olive oil, and coconut oil. Routinely consuming these types of meals leads to balanced blood-sugar levels, which in turn leads to better concentration, better mood, and greater energy and stamina—and less temptation to grab something sweet for quick energy!
- If a holiday dessert is important to you, plan for it. One good way to handle it is to make the dessert yourself. By doing that, you can control the type and amount of sweetener and flour you use, and include superfood ingredients to create a tastier, healthier indulgence. Depending on your diet, you may want to sweeten the treat with stevia, monk fruit sweetener, 100% maple syrup, yacon syrup, xylitol, or erythritol.
- Don’t skip meals, even on holidays. Adults who skip breakfast eat more snacks, increasing the intake of refined carbohydrates and added sugars.
- Experiment with spices. Organic vanilla extract and cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cardamom can make a dish taste sweeter, give you aromas and flavors of the holidays, and help satisfy your sweet tooth without added sugar.
- Choose your carbs wisely. Whenever possible, opt for non-starchy vegetables and low-glycemic-index foods, such as unsweetened nuts or beans—carbohydrates that have a lower impact on blood sugar levels—rather than grains, such as rice and bread, which spike blood sugar levels just like sugar does.
- Indulge wisely. If you know you’re having a less-than-healthy dessert, eat fewer or no carbs (potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, rice, bread) beforehand. Offer to split dessert with a dining companion. And consider taking a 200 mcg chromium picolinate supplement when you eat the dessert to give your body extra nutritional support to metabolize. When you do allow yourself a treat, eat it slowly, and savor it. This can help you feel full before you overeat and consume too many calories.
- Fiber it up. Eating fiber, such as apples, nuts, or beans, helps make you feel fuller longer. Fiber also holds down the blood sugar response and promotes regular bowel movements to eliminate waste. Either include fiber-rich ingredients in desserts you make, or eat fiber-rich vegetables in a balanced meal before dessert.
- Ditch sweetened drinks. Beverages that contain sugar or other sweeteners—including soft drinks, tonic water, fruit punch, sweetened coffee drinks, and sweetened teas (both iced and hot)—are the single largest source of calories and added sugar in the American diet. Consuming them wreaks havoc with appetite control and blood sugar levels. People who drink sugary beverages don’t feel as full as if they had eaten the same number of calories from solid food, and research indicates they also don’t compensate for the high caloric content of these beverages by eating less. To prevent beverages from sabotaging your health, sparkling mineral water is your best bet at holiday meals, or opt for unsweetened coffee or tea. See the sidebar for other ideas.
- Manage your stress, and get enough sleep and rest. Numerous studies have shown that we eat more sugar, fat, or both when we’re under physical or emotional distress or when we haven’t gotten enough sleep. To successfully limit sugar intake, it’s important to regularly practice stress reduction techniques and to get enough zzz’s.
Finally, if you do suffer a food setback, don’t beat yourself up. Just focus on getting back on track at your next meal. The key is to get yourself off the sugar rollercoaster: Eat high-quality protein, such as meat, an egg, or cheese, to stabilize blood sugar levels and quell cravings, and return to your sugar-free lifestyle as soon as possible.
How to Slash Sugar in Seasonal Beverages
The first strategy for a low-sugar lifestyle is to pay attention to the beverages you drink. That’s because physiologically speaking, sweetened beverages are even worse than sweetened foods for stimulating sugar cravings, overeating, and weight gain. The following are quick tips for cutting sugar in liquid form:
- Learn to drink unsweetened tea and coffee, or add half-and-half or unsweetened non-dairy creamers, such as unsweetened coconut milk, unsweetened vanilla NutPods, or Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Milk Creamer or Keto Creamer.
- To get a taste of the holidays without any sugar, try flavorful unsweetened teas such as Good Earth Sweet and Spicy or Caffeine-Free Sweet and Spicy, or Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane.
- Avoid alcohol, which contributes to imbalanced blood sugar levels. If you feel strongly about having a drink, opt for a glass of dry wine, and have it with a balanced protein- and vegetable-rich meal that contains good fats to reduce booze’s blood sugar-altering effects.
- For a festive, sugar-free bubbly drink, try sparkling mineral water mixed with Sparkling Teavana Unsweetened Peach Nectarine Green Tea.
- If you can’t say no to a cup of sugar-laden hot chocolate or eggnog for yuletide spirit, make it less sweet by thinning it out with water or unsweetened coconut milk, consider that drink your dessert, and choose the rest of the carbs you eat that day very carefully.