Taking nutritional value into account
As a kid, Heather Rasmussen, PhD, RD, would be just as excited about sugary holiday treats as any of her classmates or neighborhood buddies. Now a nutritionist at Rush University Medical Center, Rasmussen isn't nearly as enthusiastic about the idea of consuming large amounts of sweets — even during holiday celebrations.
"When I was younger, I wasn't thinking about nutrition, so I would eat what everybody else would eat," she says. "But sugar is just extra calories, and they're normally empty calories, meaning there's no nutrition."
Large amounts of sugar are linked to a broad range of medical problems, including obesity and tooth decay. According to the American Heart Association, adults should limit sugar intake to roughly 6 to 9 teaspoons per day — about the equivalent of one chocolate bar — while children ages 4 to 8 should consume only about three teaspoons, one fewer than the content of a can of soda.
Unfortunately, studies show that sugar intake for both kids and adults is far higher than the recommended daily amounts.
There's no sugarcoating
It doesn’t matter what form of simple sugar you consume, according to Rasmussen. High-fructose corn syrup has gotten more than its share of negative attention, and some soda producers are switching to table sugar (sucrose) because of the perceived health difference.
But both high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar — even sugar from fruit, as well as honey, molasses and syrup — are composed of the same two compounds: fructose and glucose.
A medium-sized apple contains approximately 2 teaspoons of sugar, roughly the same amount as 1 ounce of caramel-coated popcorn. But fruit shouldn't be discounted due to its sugar content.
While the nutritional value of the caramel-coated popcorn is minimal, apples are a rich source of antioxidants and other nutrients. Adding chopped apples to a bread recipe would add flavor and much more nutrition than sugar or artificial sweeteners.
However, artificial sweeteners can be a reasonable alternative to sugar, though misconceptions sometimes scare people from using them.
Much of the apprehension is due to a belief that they can cause cancer, which stems from a 1969 study in which mice developed cancerous tumors due to a combination of saccharin and cyclamate. In those studies, though, animals were fed many thousands of times the normal amount of consumption. Ensuing research has not been able to show clear evidence of a link between any artificial sweeteners and cancer in humans.
"There really is no evidence that artificial sweeteners are harmful," Rasmussen says, "and they have fewer calories."
Don't cry over spilled sugar
If you find yourself falling victim to the temptation of sugary snacks once in a while, it's important to be easy on yourself. Feelings of guilt over eating a candy bar can lead to even more consumption and overeating, an unhealthy reaction to stress.
"Even I eat things I enjoy that may not be healthy, and I know for sure what I should and shouldn't be eating," Rasmussen says.
"The things that you truly love to eat — you just have to space it out a little and eat as healthily as possible otherwise. But enjoy life — it's a balance."