Why Holiday Junk Food Is So Tempting—and So Dangerous

Poor Santa. There was once a time when all he had to worry about was cookies. Now his bowlful of jelly faces the perils of holiday-spiced donuts, eggnog lattes, and gingerbread-spiked everything.

Why do so many of these fattening treats always seem to arrive around the holidays?

“These are multi-sensory symbols of the season,” says Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D., a professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Just like Charlie Brown on TV, they remind us that this is a special time.”

And, psychologically, the “special-ness” of the holidays may also give you permission to indulge. “Holidays are a ‘time out’ from daily life,” Deutsch says.

For many people, filling up on peppermint milkshakes is like knocking on people’s doors and belting out “Jingle Bells.” It’s really weird any other time, but for some reason, totally okay in December. Junk food marketers know this, which gives them extra incentive to sell these low-nutrition, high-margin options now.

And then there’s the whole “available-for-a-limited-time” thing. Call it the McRib Effect. Short-term supply drives up demand and creates food FOMO. You see your friend Instagram a glowing review of Starbucks’ new holiday-themed glorified caffeinated milkshake and you may want in too.

It’s fine if you want to indulge, but just know the caloric cost going into it. The majority of these specialty items tend to be high in calories, driven up by sugar, and nutritionally devoid, says Amy Shapiro, R.D., owner of Real Nutrition NYC. While you might score a nice buzz from all the sweet stuff, the benefits stop there.

In fact, caving to food-related splurges frequently can turn into a habit that you carry with you into the New Year, even as you try to buckle down and keep your resolutions, according to research.

If you are going to partake in any of these seasonal treats, at least size down your order or split it with someone.

Or turn to citrus to satisfy your sweet tooth (and maybe even start a new holiday tradition). “I associate clementines with Christmas because they are in season, delicious, and great stocking stuffers,” says Deutsch.

You’d also do well to avoid these three offenders. Hear that, Santa?

The 2019 Holiday Season’s Food and Drink Hall of Shame

Snack: Starbucks Sugar Plum Danish

A snack with 330 calories isn’t that naughty. But then there’s the 16 grams of sugar inside a treat that couldn’t be bigger than Rudolph’s nose.

Dessert: Chik-fil-A Peppermint Chocolate Chip Milkshake

It’s got 160 more calories and 23 more grams of sugar than the already-indulgent vanilla shake. Holy cluck!

Coffee Drink: Dunkin Donuts Sticky Bun Swirl Cappuccino (medium, with whole milk)

This bad idea contains whopping 46 grams of sugar, more than quadruple a classic DD cappuccino.

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