Between sugar cookies, snickerdoodles and peppermint bark, there’s no shortage of sugar this time of year. Sure, indulging in a cookie here and there isn’t a big problem — but if you’re making like Santa and sneaking a plate of sweet treats every night, you might not be feeling too jolly by New Year’s Day.
This is your body on cookies.
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What One Cookie Does to Your Body
You can have your gingerbread man and eat it, too — but it’s what you do afterwards that really matters. “The calorie consequence of eating one cookie is fairly minimal; most are approximately 150 calories a piece,” says Bethany Doerfler, RD, LDN, and a clinical research dietician at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “The bigger impact is the behavioral snowball that happens from eating one cookie.”
Your palate is primed to go gaga for anything sugary, salty or fatty. “[Cookies] target all of the taste centers on our tongue and also really appeal to the pleasure centers in our brain, so eating sugar in general stimulates us and gives us a rush,” Doerfler says. But while that cookie takes your brain to its happy place, your body is releasing insulin to digest that sugar and store it — usually as fat.
“Small amounts of sugar in your diet when you are active and otherwise have a low-sugar diet, are acceptable,” Doerfler says. “The problem with many Americans is that we have more sugar in our diet than we used to…At times like the holidays, we’re tacking more onto our already high-sugar diet, which can lead to excess weight gain and insulin resistance in some people.”
While one reindeer sugar cookie won’t set you back much if you’re already eating clean, the real question is…can you stop at just one?
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What Five Cookies Can Do to Your Body
“Many people are prone to ‘dessert amnesia’ — forgetting their afternoon sweets and indulging after dinner, too.”
If one cookie leads to cravings for more…and more, that’s where you’ll start to run into problems. “What happens is you get a huge surge of calories, sugar and fat that your body doesn’t need. It can’t possibly use that for energy in the moment, so it secretes a lot of insulin to deal with that sugar, and it takes all that fat and tries to store it,” Doerfler says. That fat gets stored in your muscles, your belly and your liver — where it can start causing problems. “Fat tissue that is deep inside the belly, or visceral fat, increases our risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Doerfler says.
Meanwhile, binge eating also provides your brain with a short-lived sense of euphoria — which can later be replaced with remorse or guilt, Doerfler says. As your blood sugar spikes and then falls post-binge, you’ll be more prone to cravings, which can lead to overeating throughout the rest of the day, too, she notes. Combine that with the fact that, “eating larger amounts of sugar can be addictive because your palate becomes trained to want regular doses of sugar,” and you’ve got the makings of a Christmas season crash and burn.
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How to Pull Yourself Out of the Sugar Cookie Cycle
The good news is that if you overdo it on sweets just once or twice a year, your body can recover from a one-time binge in just 12 to 24 hours, Doerfler says. Squeeze in some exercise, and focus on eating a diet high in fiber, lean protein, fruits and vegetables to regulate your blood sugar levels and the damage can be undone. (Try these 16 healthy detox recipes — you won’t be disappointed.)
And if you want to steer clear of this vicious cycle in the first place, be smart about when you splurge. “I think that 3 p.m. is a dangerous time for people to eat sweets because we’re tired,” Doerfler says. “It’s part of our natural dip in circadian rhythm and we are using food to energize us.” Plus, many people are prone to “dessert amnesia” — forgetting their afternoon sweets and indulging after dinner, too.
Another quick fix: Reach for energy bites, instead of cookies. “There are some interesting recipes that have some nutritional value and are sweet but aren’t as as binge-worthy as something like sugar cookies,” Doerfler says. (We’d recommend these 12 Energy Bite Recipes That Taste Just Like Dessert!) Eat your cookies in moderation and leave the plate-cleaning to Santa.