Are Sugary Foods Less Unhealthy During the Holidays ?

The disconnect between 11 months of dire warnings about the evil of consuming sugar, and one month in which the ambitious baker produces prodigious numbers of sugar-sweetened cookies is glaring. The internet, print media, and holistic gurus on television tell us that sugar will, at the very least, cause diabetes, inflammation, cancer, cognitive deficits and, of course, obesity. If you want to live into the next calendar year, these experts tell us, stop eating sugar in this calendar year.

And yet, come the late days of November, baking supplies are prominently displayed on shelves in the front of the supermarket, many with sugar as a significant ingredient. Chocolate chips, sweetened coconut flakes, candied fruit, sugared pecans, and refined, brown, turbinado, and powdered sugar compete for shelf space. The shopper is motivated to buy and use these ingredients by the countless articles in newspapers featuring recipes for cookies and other holiday sweets. Television shows about food also are similarly focused, and show the viewer taught how to make mouth-watering cakes, pies, and, of course, cookies. Who wouldn’t run out to the supermarket and stock up on sugar, eggs, cream, butter, chocolate, and nuts?

But it is curious how those food components we are told to shun (because eating them will lead to a variety of health disasters…) are the dominant ones in these recipes. Sugar is present by the cupful, but generous amounts of butter, egg yolks, heavy cream, and even salt are also major players in the holiday bake-off. The recipes in the newspapers, magazines, and television programs promise taste-bud delight. Where are the nutrition experts now warning us that if we eat these potentially harmful ingredients, we may be giving the gift of future illness to our loved ones?

But wait. They will be around in January.

In the meanwhile, we are told that giving something homemade is to be prized above other gifts. It makes sense. There is much labor that goes into making and then packaging cookies, fudge, peanut brittle and homemade jams. Because they are not available with the click of a mouse, we are told that they represent some of the best gifts we can give. Obviously knitted, woven, or crocheted homemade items are also prized, except that they may not be in a color, size or shape the recipient likes.

For those without the time, talent, or motivation to make edible gifts, but who see such gifts as sufficiently impersonal to be given to people they don’t know very well, the alternative is to buy gift food baskets or boxes. Most will include a least one item that is made from sugar and fat, although some of the options include protein and high-fat foods like processed meats, or just mostly fat such as gourmet cheeses. To be fair, some gift package options are fatfree and feature fruit and nuts, gourmet honey and jams. But some of these items contain plenty of sugar.

Receiving such gifts may be awkward if the donor expects the food item to be open, tasted and shared. A friend who does not like chocolate says that she never knows what to do when presented with a box of gourmet chocolate. “I feel I am expected to open the box, take a piece and then share the rest. I don’t mind the sharing, in fact I would happily give away the entire box, but I don’t like having to eat something I don’t care for.

Returning homemade edible gifts is out of question, and regifting socially dangerous if the new recipient knows the person who made the food or perhaps received some herself. But what do we do if the food gift is incompatible with our dietary needs? What if we are pre-diabetic and told to reduce our sugar intake? What if our bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels are above normal, and we are told to reduce our consumption of saturated fat like butter and egg yolks? Or what if we know we will binge on that jar of buttery sugar cookies or tin of peanut brittle if these foods are in the house? Giving them away, rather than throwing them away, is one solution, but a recipient can’t always be found. And finally, how do we convey to the gift giver that we appreciate the labor and the thought that went into the homemade holiday food gift, but that we are unable to eat it so the person does not give us a similar gift next year?

Perhaps it is time to pay attention to the dire nutritional warnings coming at us the rest of the year about our rising rate of obesity and obesity-related disorders, and find acceptable gifts that do not war with our health needs. Indeed, gratitude at receiving a basket of buttery sugary cookies may turn to dismay when the scale reveals the aftermath of consuming the gift. It is very hard to resist tempting foods displayed on the coffee table. Better not to have them in the house at all.

But that leaves the challenge of finding gifts that are either impersonal (money is impersonal but that is another matter) and /or reflects who we are rather than a commercial enterprise. Making donations to causes that appeal to many people, like organizations which foster and adopt abandoned dogs and cats, or which support environmental protection, or help those less fortunate (such as victims of California’s fires), are alternatives that could be considered. Donating to these organizations in the name of the person to whom you want to give a gift makes everyone feel good. Donating money to organizations that feed those who do not get enough to eat, rather than spending it on baskets and boxes containing foods that no one really needs to eat, is an alternative that benefits everyone.

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