11/22/2022 | By Betty Gold

Many of our favorite dishes capture fond childhood memories. While signature dishes may be filled with love and holiday cheer, they may also be filled with sugar. Which sugary holiday foods should we avoid?

We’re well aware that pecan and pumpkin pies are packed with sugar, but sugar lurks in more than just the obvious places. In fact, some seemingly nutritious holiday food classics are packed with enough sugar to unknowingly satisfy any sweet tooth.

“The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for most women and children over the age of 2 years, and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for most men,” says Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., RD, chief of nutrition in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and American Heart Association expert.

American adults and kids currently consume much more than that, which can cause overeating, weight gain and inflammation — all things that increase risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive problems, cancer and more.

Food and drink to avoid

Sugary drinks

According to Van Horn, nearly half of the added sugar in the American diet comes from sugary drinks. “During the holiday season, eggnog, hot chocolate, apple cider, flavored coffee drinks and cocktails are sneaky sources of sugar because people often have these in addition to meals and snacks, so they don’t think of them as almost the same calories and sugar as a meal on their own,” she explains. Just one of these drinks can be more than the recommended daily limit of sugar consumption.

Side dishes

Vegetable and starchy sides like sweet potatoes and squash that are mixed or topped with sugar (ahem, including marshmallows, molasses, and maple syrup) can pack a scary amount of sugar. Same goes for cranberry sauce, Van Horn says.

How to avoid sugary holiday foods and drinks

When grocery shopping, Van Horn recommends checking nutrition labels before you buy. “Sugar goes by many aliases, like agave, corn sweetener, dextrose, juice concentrate, glucose, honey, maltose, molasses, sucrose, and anything with the words sugar or syrup,” she says.

Swap ingredients! 

holiday foods, sweet potato casserole, corn, turkey, on a fall decorate table. For article on sugary holiday foods.

“For holiday food or drinks like eggnog or hot chocolate, use low-fat, skim or nondairy milk and leave off the whipped cream. You can also add flavor by using unsweetened cocoa powder, vanilla or peppermint extract and spices,” Van Horn adds. Try a holiday mocktail like sparkling water with frozen berries or a splash of 100% fruit juice instead.

When cooking or baking, use spices, herbs or citrus to flavor dishes instead of sugar. For recipes that call for adding chocolate chips, try adding dried fruit (with no added sugar) or chopped walnuts. You can also lean on the natural sweetness of fruit and bake desserts like apple bread pudding or baked apples and pears with almonds.

What about sugar-free options or artificial sweeteners?

“Replacing sugary foods and drinks with sugar-free options containing what we call non-nutritive sweeteners (because they offer no nutritional benefit) can help people limit the amount of sugar in their diet,” Van Horn says. “But it’s important they are included in an overall healthy diet and that those ‘saved’ calories aren’t then added back by eating more unhealthy foods as a reward later in the day.”

Related: How to Enjoy Holiday Eating with Diabetes

Final words regarding holiday food

At the end of the holiday, Van Horn emphasizes that your overall eating pattern is most important. “Per the American Heart Association, that means emphasizing fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, lean protein and fish while limiting things like trans fats, sodium, processed meats, refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and beverages.”

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Betty Gold