Here’s How Healthy Your Holiday Drinks Really Are — And How to Enjoy Them Anyway
Head to any coffee chain between early November and the end of December and among the evergreen classics, you’ll almost certainly find an extensive list of seasonal beverages promising the taste of the holidays. Nothing improves a cold and snowy day like a warm, smooth coffee with a hint of gingerbread that conjures up roaring fires and jingling bells. But what is in these drinks that makes them taste so good — and is it bad for us? If you wait all year for that special menu to arrive, read this while you’re in the line at the coffee shop.
What’s in your coffee?
Served up in special cups and topped with swirls of whipped cream and extra sprinkles, festive coffees and hot chocolates now come in enough flavors to make up their own feast. And depending on your personal order, many contain more sugar and fat than you might think. For example, a grande Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate from Starbucks with 2 percent milk and whipped cream contains 10g (0.35 oz) of saturated fat — half your recommended daily intake — and 65g (2.3 oz) of sugar. When you consider that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends getting less than 10 percent of your daily calories from sugar, and preferably eating no more than 25g (0.9 oz) of sugar a day, you realize how much of the sweet stuff goes into one drink. And it’s not just Starbucks: A medium Dunkin’ Donuts Cinnamon Sticky Bun Swirl Hot Latte with whole milk contains 5g (0.17 oz) of saturated fat and 53g (1.7 oz) of sugar.
What does that actually mean for your health? “We shouldn’t demonize individual ingredients such as cream, sugar, and syrup, but it is important to be aware of what you choose to consume and to understand how it can fit into a balanced diet,” explains dietician Alyssa Lavy, RD, CDN, who owns Alyssa Lavy Nutrition & Wellness. “Many of these drink options contain multiple energy-dense ingredients and are more comparable to a dessert than a cup of coffee.” While sugar and fat are not inherently bad when consumed in moderate amounts and as part of an active lifestyle, too much of either over a long period of time, can contribute to health problems. And even in the short term, warns Dr. Navya Mysore, MD, a family medicine practitioner with One Medical, you may see some adverse effects: “When you have a high amount of sugar, you can become jittery and may experience heart palpitations, an increase in energy, and a lack of focus — in short, a ‘sugar rush.’ Your pancreas secretes more insulin into your system to absorb the extra glucose. After your body absorbs the glucose, you crash. You might feel sluggish, lethargic, or have a headache.” In the long term, she says, “If frequently repeated, this swing from high to low taxes the pancreas and puts you more at risk for diabetes.”
Check your classics too
Syrupy coffees and hot chocolates aren’t the only culprits: Classics like eggnog and buttered rum have their own issues. “Eggnog is made with egg yolks, sugar, milk, and cream, and can pack a hefty amount of sugar and saturated fat,” warns Rachel Fine, RD, CDN, a dietitian who owns To The Pointe Nutrition in New York City. “Buttered rum, which is usually made from brown sugar, rum, warm spices, and butter, also comes high in saturated fat and sugar.” All those extra ingredients overwhelming your taste buds can make it easy to forget that your drink contains booze, and it can be especially hard to judge how much is in it when it’s homemade. “You should be careful with your alcohol intake throughout the year, but especially at the holidays,” Dr. Mysore cautions. She recommends alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks: “It can be difficult to effectively monitor how much you’ve had to drink at these celebrations. Spacing out your drinking can give you the time to analyze how the alcohol has affected you, and help you decide with more confidence whether or not to have another glass.”
And when the night is over, that sweet and boozy combination that makes a drink so tempting in the moment can have a double-whammy impact the next morning. “If you’re drinking cocktails or other mixed drinks with additives that are high in sugar, be cognizant of the sugar crashes and hangovers that can come with that,” Dr. Mysore adds. Eggnog fans, she warns, have another concern: “A lot of people use raw eggs, which may have salmonella. It’s a common misconception that adding rum or whiskey to eggnog kills the bacteria — this is not the case. The FDA recommends using a cooked egg base as opposed to raw to avoid the risk altogether.” Better safe than sick.
It’s not all bah humbug
Now we’ve been the lump of coal in your stocking, we have some good news: You don’t have to swear off your favorite festive drink entirely. In fact, all the experts we spoke to said they encourage people to enjoy seasonal treats. “It’s okay to indulge and celebrate,” Dr. Mysore assures us. “I never recommend depriving yourself unless you need to stay away for a particular medical condition. It’s only dangerous if it becomes a habit: If each day from the end of October through December you’re having a latte with added sugar and whipped cream, that could become an issue. It can sneak up on you in terms of weight gain, feeling jittery, experiencing more headaches, and generally not feeling well. ”
In addition, if you like, there are a few subtle changes you can make to your drinks to minimize the less healthy components. “I recommend getting a small size so you keep portions in check without compromising on flavor,” Lavy advises. “Choose only one ‘extra’, such as syrup or whipped cream, rather than adding every possible option to your drink.” Fine adds, “Use low fat milk or a dairy-free alternative like almond milk, combined with 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder to satisfy your chocolate-loving sweet tooth. For additional flavor boosts, try using spices like 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg as a swap for flavored syrups.” With a clearer perspective on what’s in your favorite drinks, you can still enjoy them while they’re here — but in a way that ensures your celebrations are less sugar rush, and more pure sweet.
What’s your favorite holiday drink? Toast to it with us @BritandCo.
(Photo via Getty)