Mental Wellness During The Holidays

While the holidays are a joyful time spent with loved ones, they are also a highly busy and stressful time. It may be a busy time of year at work, and running around shopping and decorating can be stressful. You could also be suffering from the Christmas blues. If you are experiencing the blues, know that you are not alone; they can afflict anyone at any age and are usually caused by a life event. Not to mention the stress of trying to impress others with gifts, attend parties, and deal with family or toxic people, all of which contribute to the blues. People also remember individuals who are no longer alive to celebrate throughout the holidays.  Here is what we do to make it past the awkward hugs, the eye-rolls, and weird, invasive questions about your love life.

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Organize and Budget Gifts

Organization will liberate you! Do you believe you have an insurmountable task list? As with the previous step, break them up. It will stress you out much more if you have this cloud of ideas flying about in your head. If your budget is limited, it is okay to decline gift exchanges. Instead of buying gifts for everyone, encourage them to give to charity, make a homemade gift, or organize a low-cost activity for you all to do. If traveling is too expensive for you, ask family or friends to contribute to the cost of the ticket rather than giving you gifts. If you are unable to attend, request to skype or FaceTime with the individual or persons so that you can still participate in the festivities. Plan your budget ahead of time so you know what you can afford. Here’s what to do:


  • Make your list – List out the names of people you’ll be seeing during the holidays that you want to buy gifts for.
  • Organize by priority – Once you can physically see the list, rearrange it by priority whether it be kids first, then immediate family, followed by extended family or just by the order that you plan on seeing them in.
  • Pick the presents – You can begin assigning present ideas to each person once you’ve determined who you’ll be buying things for. If the process starts to become stressful , brainstorm with some hot cocoa and/or play some soothing music like jazz or holiday-themed songs.
  • Set realistic goals – You probably have a reasonable estimate of your budget for these things, but price each item separately and sum it up. It is easier to plan when you have specific numbers to work with.
  • Finalize it – Top off the whole process by turning all of your information into a checklist, you can even put the dates you’ll be seeing each person to give yourself a little deadline. This way you can mark off the gifts as you go so you don’t forget anything.

It’s Okay To Say No

The holidays may be stressful, especially if you commit to too many gatherings or have unreasonable expectations. When you say yes when you should say no, it merely leads to a flood of overwhelming and resentful feelings. With work and limited vacation time, your schedule is already packed. Don’t try to be in too many places at once since you won’t be able to appreciate your time. You’ll be too preoccupied with getting to the next party or worrying about hosting your own. Take it at your own speed and learn to say no.


You can decline invitations to some gatherings in order to spend more quality time with the people you do prefer to visit. Set priorities and stick to your budget. Take the previous checklist and replace the gifts with family members you want to see. Instead of gift pricing, assign trip prices to each one. If you are unable to accommodate everyone, make plans to visit once the holiday rush has subsided. They’ll probably understand, and also appreciate the break from the hustle and bustle. Visiting after the holidays may end up being more of a gift to everyone involved. 

Don’t Overindulge

Consider all of the pastries and snacks you’ll be eating and drinking throughout the holidays! Our eating habits are tested over the holiday season, with dinners, parties, and cookie tables at every turn.  Overindulging can make you feel tired or sluggish. It can also cause you to gain an unhealthy amount of weight, adding to your mental stress. Take a brief walk to get some exercise. Allow yourself time to be active so that you can appreciate all of the delicious treats.  Attempt to maintain a healthy diet. Consuming whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also aid in leveling out your mood.

Make Self-Care A Priority

This is more than just meditation. If you have a fitness routine, don’t let it slip during family visits. Try to go to the gym or perform some home exercises. Sticking to your routines (whether self-care or otherwise) not only gives you a mental lift, but it also establishes an internal norm. You’re going to dedicate your time and energy to people you care about this Christmas season, but don’t lose sight of yourself in the process. Keep your feet on the ground. Make time for activities that make you happy. It could be reading a book, going to the movies, having a massage, listening to music, or walking your dog. It is okay to prioritize alone time when you need to refuel.

mental health tips graphic

Don’t Isolate Yourself

Some people may experience loneliness during the holidays, but if you don’t want to be alone, you don’t have to be. You can join an organization, volunteer at a soup kitchen, attend community events, and meet new people. Volunteering can be a wonderful source of comfort. You can feel less lonely or isolated and more connected to your community by assisting those who are less fortunate. Start a toy or food drive and invite your neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

Be Present

Have a two-week trip planned to see relatives? Take everything one day at a time. This can work even if you are not staying for an extended period of time. One hour, one minute, one second at a time. Simply concentrate on the subject at hand and give it your undivided attention. Don’t be concerned about the rest of it. It is beneficial to employ these bite-size moments during stressful periods. Pay attention in the present moment. If you spend too much time thinking about future occurrences, you will become more stressed in the present.

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Seek Professional Help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak with your mental health practitioner. They can assist you in identifying particular circumstances that trigger you and develop an action plan to modify them. Keep seeing your therapist if you’re already seeing one. If you’re not already seeing one your health insurance will actually cover some mental health services due to the Mental Health Parity Act. 


The Mental Health Parity Act requires insurance companies to handle coverage for mental and behavioral health and drug use problems in the same way that they treat coverage for medical and surgical care. This includes treating them equally in terms of money. For example, an insurance company cannot charge a $40 payment for a mental health professional’s office visit when most medical office visits only require a $20 copay. 


In addition, the Affordable Care Act also provides protection for mental health services. Mental health is covered as an essential health benefit in all ACA-compliant plans. As with other medical illnesses, your plan should cover some or all of the cost of mental health care. All ACA-compliant plans must include the following mental health services:


  • Outpatient individual or group counseling and therapy
  • Diagnostic services like psychological testing and evaluation
  • Ongoing outpatient treatment such as treatment programs and medication management
  • Outpatient treatment for alcohol or chemical addictions
  • Detox services
  • Substance abuse recovery treatment
  • Inpatient mental healthcare in a psychiatric facility

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Any visit has the potential to cause family turmoil. You want your parents/relatives to have a good time and enjoy your visit, but the holidays may bring a whole new level of stress to the situation. Maintaining excellent relationships with friends and family has surprising health benefits, so these trips are well worth it in the long term. Just keep these pointers in mind, and you should be okay. As for finding health insurance to cover your mental health, consider us Santa’s helpers. A licensed EZ insurance agent can explain the advantages and disadvantages of each plan, while also helping you in developing the plan that is ideal for you. 


Working with an agent saves you time and stress because you won’t have to decipher legal language or read fine text. Agents perform all of the heavy lifting, so you can relax knowing that your coverage is tailored to your specific financial and medical needs. Not to mention that EZ agents can save you hundreds of dollars on health insurance rates each year. We accomplish this by being able to search both on and off the market for the most cheap plans.


We can also locate and apply any discounts you may be eligible for. Also,we don’t simply provide you a strategy; we also aid you in maintaining it after the fact! We can assist in filing claims with your provider as well as renewing your coverage when the time comes. To get a quote, enter your zip code into the box below or call one of our qualified representatives at 877-670-3557.

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Why Annual Physicals Are So Important

Why Annual Physicals Are So Important text overlaying image of a nurse in an exam room Many people do not see the importance in scheduling an annual physical, especially if they’re in good health. However, regular exams are essential to your continued health no matter what age you are. These exams allow your doctors to monitor your health, make necessary adjustments to your medications, and prevent serious health conditions from developing or worsening. Annual exams don’t only help you get healthy but they can also save your life. 

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What To Expect From Your Annual Physical

An annual physical is a general checkup that looks at your health as a whole. Your PCP will look at your medical history as well as your vital signs such as your heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure. During the visit your doctor will also give you a full physical check. Depending on how old you are and how healthy, your doctor may order more tests. These could include things like cholesterol and blood sugar tests from a lab. It may also include ultrasound tests to check for breast cancer, lung cancer and osteoporosis.


Your doctor will be able to look for common problems that come with aging and make treatment plans if needed. During your physical exam you can also talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make to be healthier. Such as advice on nutrition and exercise. There are several essential reasons to use your yearly physical exam. 

Establishing Your Health Baseline

One of the more important things about getting regular physicals is that you and your doctor can learn more about your current health and spot any risks early on. Over time your doctor will check and monitor each of your vitals at each visit. This establishes your health baseline letting your doctor become familiar with what your body’s “normal” is. It helps your doctor know you and your body so they can spot any unhealthy trends early. They will keep an eye out for any significant changes to your health so they can treat it immediately. 

Updating Your Vaccines

Vaccines are not just something that kids need. Adults also need to make sure they’re up to date on them as well. Your doctor will keep track of these vaccines at your physical exam and let you know when it’s time to update them:


  • Covid-19 vaccine and boosters This vaccine helps people from getting sick or dying from COVID. Everyone age 5 and up should get the vaccine as well as the booster shots as they become available. 
  • TDAP vaccine – The TDAP vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (whooping cough). This is a shot you get as a kid but adults need a repeat shot every so often. And pregnant women need this shot every pregnancy. 
  • Flu shot – Flu shots are recommended every year from the time you turn 6 months old. 
  • HPV vaccine Cancers caused by the human papillomavirus are stopped by the HPV vaccine. In the past few years, the advice that girls and boys ages 11 to 12 get an HPV shot hasn’t changed. But the CDC now says that all women and men up to age 26 should get a catch-up HPV shot. Adults between the ages of 27 and 45 who haven’t gotten the vaccine before might also benefit from a “catch-up” shot.
  • Pneumonia vaccine – If you have asthma, smoke, or are over 65, your primary care doctor (PCP) may suggest the pneumonia vaccine to keep you from getting a lung illness. 
  • Shingles vaccine – Almost anyone 50 and older is encouraged to get the shingles vaccine every 5 years.
  • Hepatitis B vaccine – If you have diabetes or another disease that affects your immune system, work in the healthcare field, or live in a group setting like a nursing home, your doctor may suggest that you get the hepatitis B vaccine.

Medication Management.

Any medication that you take every day can sometimes need to be adjusted. This can happen due to your body building an immunity to the medication or your health declining. Your doctor will look over your medications at your annual physical as well as consider any new symptoms you’ve discussed during the visit to decide if they need to increase, stop, or add medications to your treatment plan. They will also monitor to make sure you never take 2 medications that will negatively affect each other. 

Updating Medical Records

Your medical records aren’t just paperwork. These records keep an in-depth record of your health history so that it’s easy to compare your current health to the past to help identify health trends. Your Medical records include things like:


  • History of medication changes
  • Allergies
  • Vaccines
  • Family health history
  • Past surgeries
  • Treatment plans
  • Test results
  • Weight loss/gain trends
  • Current health conditions

These records also come in handy if you switch doctors or need to see a specialist, your new doctor will have all the information they need to treat you properly. Medical records are also extremely important in an emergency situation. If you’re unable to speak, your records can help emergency room doctors and surgeons treat you accurately and quickly without accidentally making any health conditions worse. Such as giving you a medicine you are allergic to or that will react badly with current medications. As well as let them know any existing conditions that they might need to be aware of during an emergency surgery.

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Building Trust With Your Doctor

Your PCP is your partner in health care. An annual physical check is a great way to get to know your PCP and let your provider get to know you. This one-on-one time with your doctor is a great way to connect and build trust with your doctor. Even if you see your primary care provider for minor illnesses and injuries at other times of the year, these “sick-care” visits are generally about treating specific problems.


During your yearly physical, your health as a whole and the preventive care you need to stay healthy are the main concerns. In addition to learning more about you and how you live, your PCP will give you plenty of time to talk about any worries or questions you may have about medications, treatment plans, or other health problems. The American healthcare system can be complicated, so having a doctor you trust to guide you through it is invaluable.

Saving Money

Some people say that getting a checkup once a year is a waste of money, however getting a checkup once a year at the office of your general care doctor can save you money in the long run. Getting a physical once a year can help keep medical costs down in the future. If your doctor finds a disease or sickness before you feel sick, it will cost less to treat you than if you wait until you feel sick. It’s easier and cheaper to stop a problem from happening than to fix it afterward. Early diagnosis is important for both your health and your bank account. When you make an appointment for your yearly physical, you’re making a cost-effective choice.

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Physical Exam

If you only see your doctor once a year, make the most of it by knowing your family’s medical background and telling your doctor about it. Tell your doctor if someone in your family has been told they have a sickness or cancer. Also, bring a list or a bag with you that has all of the medicines and vitamins you take. This will help your doctor check for possible drug combinations and make sure you are taking the right amount of each drug. Don’t be afraid to talk about changes in your health, even if you think they are small. Some examples would be changes in how you sleep, what you eat, or how you feel. Don’t just worry about your physical health and forget about your mental health.

Getting Health Insurance

Preventative care is a “freebie” built into almost all health plans. Meaning these yearly exams are often free with the right health insurance. A qualified EZ insurance agent can explain what each health plan’s pros and cons are. And help you come up with the plan that works best for you. Working with an agent saves you time and stress because you don’t have to try to figure out legal jargon or read small print. Agents do all the hard work, so you can relax knowing that your coverage will meet your financial and medical needs the best. 


Not to mention that EZ agents can save you hundreds of dollars a year on your health insurance bills. We do this by being able to look for the cheapest rates both on and off the market. Our agents can also find and use any savings you might be able to get. We don’t just help you find a plan, though, we also help you keep it up to date. We can help you make claims with your insurance company and help you renew your policy when it’s time. To get started, just type your zip code into the box below or call 877-670-3557 to talk to one of our certified agents.

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6 Mother’s Day Gift Ideas For Mom This Year

Whether you’re shopping for your own mom or a mother figure in your life, showing her appreciation and love on Mother’s Day is a must. With so many gift possibilities out there, it can be tricky to find something unique that expresses just how much she means to you. To help make this holiday a breeze for you, here are 6 memorable Mother’s Day gift ideas that any mom will adore!

Gold Medal Wine

Let’s start with something that’s always a crowd pleaser – wine! Gold Medal Wine is a great option for those who want to give their moms something luxurious and delicious. They have a wide variety of wines to choose from, so you can pick one that best suits your mom’s taste. Plus, their website has a lot of helpful information about each wine, so you can feel confident in your selection.

Mother's Day gift - Gold Medal Wine box

Happy Box Store

If your mom is more into self-care, then the Happy Box Store might be the perfect choice. They offer a range of beautifully curated gift boxes. You can choose everything from candles to face masks to journals. Each box is designed to make your mom feel pampered and loved, and they even offer a subscription service so she can receive a box every month.

Mother's Day gift - Happy Box Store

Fresh Meal Plan

Another great option for busy moms is Fresh Meal Plan. This service delivers healthy, chef-prepared meals right to your mom’s door. It’s a thoughtful and practical gift that will take the stress out of meal planning and preparation. Plus, you can customize the meals to fit your mom’s dietary needs and preferences.

Get $40 Off on Mother's Day gift - Fresh Meal Plan


For the mom who’s always on the go, ThinOptics is a gift she’ll appreciate. These ultra-thin reading glasses are designed to fit in a slim case that attaches to your phone or laptop, so your mom will always have her glasses handy. It’s a practical gift that she’ll be sure to use every day.

Mother's Day gift - Thin Optics Glasses With Phone Holder


If your mom loves to read but doesn’t always have the time to sit down with a book, then AudiobooksNow is a great Mother’s Day gift option. This service offers a huge selection of audiobooks that can be downloaded and listened to on any device. It’s a great way for your mom to enjoy her favorite books while she’s on the go or doing chores around the house.

Mother's Day gift promo - AudioBooksNow Bissell

Last but not least, for the mom who’s a clean freak, Bissell is a great option. Their vacuums and carpet cleaners are some of the best on the market and will make cleaning a breeze for your mom. Plus, they have a range of products that are specifically designed for pet owners, so if your mom has furry friends, she’ll appreciate a Bissell even more. Mother's Day gift - Bissel Jet Scrub So there you have it – six great Mother’s Day gift ideas for your mom this year. No matter what your mom is into, there’s something on this list that’s sure to make her smile. Here’s to wishing all the Mothers out there a wonderful and blessed Mother’s Day. Happy gifting!

Are You Falling into the Mental Health Self-Diagnosis Trap?

We’re living in a time when getting professional mental health care is much easier than it used to be, and much less stigmatized. And that’s a good thing! There’s so much information out there, allowing everyone to learn more about the mental health issues that they or their loved ones could be dealing with. And generally, knowledge is power, right? 

Yes, but there could also be a darker side to all of the sharing about mental health concerns that’s happening on social media, and the internet at large. Influencers who share their stories on social media, and even some of the so-called experts putting out information on mental health on the internet, are leading many people to self-diagnose conditions like ADHD and depression. And that might not be such a good thing. If you’re falling into the mental health self-diagnosis trap, you might want to consider what mental health professionals say about relying on the internet as a diagnostic tool, and even as a form of therapy.

The Rise of Self-Diagnosis

The wealth of information we have, and the rise of influencers and others sharing their thoughts on mental illness everywhere on the internet, has led to an explosion of mental health self-diagnosis, especially among younger people. There is a ton of user-generated content on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram that encourage people to identify with a particular mental health issue. 

graph on the rise

Just check this out: hashtags on TikTok in 2021 include 2.7 billion views for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), 2.5 billion for Tourette’s, and 1.5 billion for DID (dissociative identity disorder). And most of the videos being consumed are not strictly informational videos. Rather, they are “personal experience” videos that detail how the creator of the video has struggled with a particular disorder, how they went about diagnosing their issue and how their diagnosis changed their life, what their new self-understanding means for them, how they’re addressing their condition, etc. 

This type of content is huge. In fact, a recent study reported that of the 100 most popular ADHD videos on TikTok, the highest engagement was with personal experience videos, averaging nearly 3.9 million views each. But it’s not just TikTok content that’s driving people to self-diagnose. According to Joseph E. Davis, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today about the numerous studies over the years he’s done on self-diagnosis of mental conditions, the people he has interviewed cite “Google searches, newspaper and magazine articles, talks with friends and family, and pharmaceutical advertisements as sources of stories and ideas about particular disorders that resonated with them and persuaded them that they suffered from a particular condition.”

But is this necessarily a bad thing? He also says that most of the people he spoke to sought help from professionals after “self-diagnosing,” so maybe the information available to them is not a bad thing, since it encouraged them to examine their own mental health. But Davis doesn’t fully agree.

Should We Leave It to the Pros?

Davis worries that people are treating mental illness as a kind of catch-all explanation for other issues in their lives. He also points out that people aren’t treating these conditions as they would any other health condition that needs a diagnosis based on specific parameters. 

He says, “Interviewees in my study did not treat their self-labeled conditions as having objective, predefined medical meanings on the model of afflictions like diabetes or heart disease. Rather, they defined the conditions in their own self-referential terms, flexibly fitting a definition to their own way of thinking about the meaning of their experience and their self-identity.” He gives an example of a TikTok video describing the “symptoms” – wrongly – of ADHD as including “anxiety shivers,” “random noise making,” and “being competitive”.

fake news stamped on newspaper
There is a lot of misinformation out there, which can lead down a dangerous path.

And yes, that is certainly a danger of using something outside of the medical profession to “diagnose” yourself. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of temptation to cling onto somebody’s personal story as a way to explain what you’re struggling with. Davis stresses his belief that many people who self-diagnose a mental health condition are often doing so to find some meaning in – and even a community of people – surrounding  “all manner of troublesome, frustrating, and disappointing experiences.” 

In other words, he believes that a lot of people are stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, unhappy at their jobs, etc, and are searching for insight, relief, and other people who share their experiences. And that’s easy to understand. But he and other experts are adamant that a mental health diagnosis should only be made by a mental health professional, since these assessments can be complex, and need a trained, objective eye. 

Not only that, but some experts worry that this explosion of people encouraging others to self-diagnose could actually cause its own problems. In one extreme case, Dr. Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital, says “We’ve seen an explosion of Tourette-like tics in our unit and every single case has been linked with watching countless TikTok videos about people with Tourette syndrome. [They] don’t have Tourette’s, but they aren’t pretending either. They have a functional movement disorder as a result of stress and possibly underlying anxiety or depression which may or may not have been properly diagnosed.”

After a series of individualized treatment plans and two weeks off of TikTok, the patients were back to normal – the tics were gone – showing just how powerful and influential these TikTok videos can be.

That’s the worst case scenario, but even in the best case, a lot of experts just feel frustrated that we’re not leaving this to the pros. Says Dr. Adelayo, “It creates this horoscope type of effect. People see enough of these videos, they start to relate to any number of the potential symptoms and even begin to present with some of the same symptoms. The thing is psychological illnesses don’t happen that way. Just because you pee a lot, doesn’t mean you have diabetes. You just don’t have diabetes because you say you have diabetes.”

Is There a Positive Side to All This?

Are all mental health professionals completely bugged or distressed by the explosion of lay people “diagnosing” themselves? Not necessarily. Consider the perspective of Micheline Maalouf, a licensed mental health counselor, and owner of Serein Counseling in Orlando, Florida. A client of hers convinced himself that he was living with OCD because he watched a TikTok video and “checked off” all the symptoms he had. 

He told her, “I saw this TikTok video about signs that you may have OCD. I resonated with some of the symptoms but not all, so I’m not sure if I have it. My situation wasn’t exactly like the person’s in the video, but it got me thinking.”

While Maalouf was careful to explain that diagnosing something like OCD is much more complicated than ticking off a checklist, she also says she is thankful for conversations such as these for two reasons. First, it means the client has some self-awareness, which is a good thing. And second, it provides her with more insight into her client and the potential issues they need to work on in therapy, regardless of whether the issues match the client’s self-diagnosis. 

And self-awareness and insight can only be positive things, when coupled with an open mind about what you might be struggling with! It’s just important not to get stuck on a “diagnosis” that you are sure is correct.

And not only that, but social media, when used in a positive way, can actually foster a feeling of community and belonging for those looking for mental health answers. It’s really opened the door for people to get more comfortable with talking about neurodivergence, anxiety, depression, and trauma, and it has helped lift some of the stigmas from these issues, as well as from others like autism.

So it’s not all bad, but if you’re engaging with this type of social media, it’s important to be careful who you look to, and where you go, for advice. You should also remember that social media isn’t actually therapy, and that you should take a break from it when you need to! And if social media feels like it’s starting to affect your daily life, please talk to a professional.illustration of a woman speaking to another woman

The bottom line is, if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health issue, including the following, please speak to a mental health professional:

  • Social isolation
  • Irritability
  • Decreased sleep
  • Decreased academic/work performance
  • Difficulty concentrating

But with that being said, if you are stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, and/or unhappy, as Davis suspects many people who are falling into the self-diagnosis trap are, it is also in your best interest to seek help! There’s no need to guess at what’s troubling you, or to only find a connection through an app or a screen. There is help out there, there are people to connect with, and it’s 100% OK to ask for that help and that connection! 

Co-written by Joanna Bowling

‘Tis the Season for Sweets! We Answer All of Your Questions about Sugar Alternatives

How many cookies or other sweets have you had so far this festive season? OK, don’t answer that – and no judgment! But you might be starting to feel a little, well, uncomfortable with your sugar consumption, right? But instead of swearing the sweet stuff off completely (that’s pretty tough!), you might want to turn to alternatives to refined cane sugar. Those might be the most natural of alternatives, like maple syrup or honey, or more artificial ways to get your sweet on, but are any of them actually better for you? Or could some of them even be worse? So, in the middle of this holiday cookie-fest, we want to get down to answering all of your pressing questions about the sweet stuff!

How Big Is Our Sugar Obsession?

Get this: the average American adult, teenager, and child consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or about 270 calories (which is around 13% of the calories we take in every day). That translates into around 57 pounds of added sugar consumed each year, per person! That far exceeds the recommended daily limit – in most cases, by around 3 times. 

All this should come as no surprise, considering that 3 out of 4 products on grocery store shelves contain added sugar. Sugar – in all of its forms – is nearly impossible to avoid, but our overconsumption of most kinds can lead to:heart with a rhythym

  • Heart disease – Eating 12–30 teaspoons of added sugar per day increases the risk of dying from heart disease by nearly one-third compared to those who eat less sugar. Eating more than 30 teaspoons increases the risk by nearly 3 times. Sugar contributes to more than 52,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease every year in the US.
  • Diabetes – Consuming the equivalent amount of sugar to that in just 1 -2 12-oz sodas per day can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 26% and the risk of developing hypertension by 12%. More than 1 in 3 US adults has pre-diabetes, and 40% of all children are predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime.
  • Dental decay – Regular sugary soda consumption is associated with nearly twice the risk of dental decay in children. Adults who drink 1-2 sugary drinks per day have 30% more dental disease compared with adults who consume no sugary drinks.

And those are just some of the risks associated with overconsumption of sugar (think: overweight or obesity and all of their related health complications). But would replacing certain forms of sweeteners with others make a difference? Maybe in some ways, but let’s take a closer look

Is Maple Syrup Better Than Refined Sugar?

We’re gonna give you the good news and the bad news about maple syrup, our favorite breakfast-time sweetener (and a great refined sugar alternative in baking). First here are the stats: one tablespoon of maple syrup contains 52 calories, 13.4 grams of carbohydrates, 0 grams of fiber, and 12.1 grams of sugar. How does that stack up to traditional refined sugar? Well, maple syrup has fewer calories: refined granulated sugar has 68 calories per teaspoon, and refined granulated sugar has more grams of sugar. But that being said, it has slightly fewer carbs than maple syrup.

OK, so far they’re not sounding all that different. But here’s one interesting thing: maple syrup’s fewer calories are not as empty as those of sugar. According to William Dixon, M.D., clinical assistant professor at Stanford School of Medicine and practicing emergency medicine physician, “Maple syrup has a nutritional advantage over sugar because it does not contain any additives, and the processing allows it to retain its nutrients, including manganese, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and potassium.”

Not only that, but maple syrup has a lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning it won’t spike your blood sugar in the same way, and it contains those little powerhouses, antioxidants, which help our cells fight off stress, and thus, illness. It also has anti-inflammatory and prebiotic activity, so it helps support gut health.

The bottom line: if it’s calories and sugar you’re worried about, switching to maple syrup is not going to make a huge difference. But if you’re looking for more nutritional bang for your buck from the things you consume, including your sweeteners, maple syrup wins every time over refined sugar.

Is Honey Better Than Refined Sugar?

honey jar
While honey is better than refined sugar, it still has a lot of sugar!

So how about the sweet stuff given to us by the bees, honey? This lovely bit of golden goodness is actually even sweeter and carbier than maple syrup: a tablespoon of honey contains 63.8 calories, 17.3 grams of carbohydrates, and 17.2 grams of sugar, according to the USDA. 

But with that being said, “Honey’s advantages over sugar include a slightly lower glycemic index (i.e. it doesn’t affect your blood-sugar levels as much). It also contains more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, such as calcium, potassium, vitamin C, zinc, phenolic acids, and flavonoids,” according to Dr. Dixon. It also has antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties, and beneficial bacteria for gut health, so like maple syrup, it’s a healthier choice than refined sugar in certain ways. 

But even with all the advantages of maple syrup and honey, you still have to use them in moderation. At the end of the day, sugar is sugar, and both maple syrup and honey have a lot of it. They both still spike your blood sugar to some extent, and as Dr. Dixon says, “Maple syrup and honey may have a few advantages over table sugar, but they’re both considered to be added sugars. There’s strong evidence that higher sugar intake is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, some cancers, and obesity.” So go easy, but also remember that we don’t have to think about food as “bad” – all things can be enjoyed in a varied and balanced diet!

Are There Health Risks to Artificial Sweeteners?

So we’ve talked about the natural stuff, but what about those no/low-calorie artificial sweeteners that you often see out on tables and in packaged goods and diet sodas? While these might be tempting as a way to cut sugar out of your diet without losing the sweetness, you’re probably better off avoiding them and sticking with a natural sweetener, or better yet, cutting back on sweet stuff as much as possible.

Why? Well, there is mounting evidence that artificial sweeteners like aspartame (found in sweeteners like Equal, as well as in cereals, yogurt, candy, and diet soda) and sucralose (found in Splenda as well as baked goods, ice cream, canned fruit, flavored yogurt, and syrups), might actually be actively harmful. Just check out these recent findings:

  • Participants in a September 2022 study who consumed large amounts of aspartame had a higher risk of stroke than people who didn’t consume the sweetener.
  • In the same study, people who consumed high quantities of sucralose and acesulfame potassium, often used in “sugar-free” soda, had a higher risk of coronary heart disease.
  • An August study found that consuming non-nutritive sweetener (sugar substitutes that contain few calories or nutrients) could alter a person’s gut microbes and potentially elevate blood sugar levels. High blood sugar can increase one’s risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke.
  • A June lab study found that artificial sweeteners cause gut bacteria to invade cells in the intestine wall, which could raise the risk of infection or organ failure.

These sweeteners don’t sound all so sweet now, right? So again, it’s probably best not to use these artificial sweeteners as an alternative to real sugar. You’re better off just cutting back, or using natural sweeteners sparingly.

What Do We Know about “No-Calorie” Natural Sweeteners?

The truth is, the artificial sweeteners we talked about above are a little, well, old-fashioned. Nowadays, more people are switching to “natural” calorie-free sugar alternatives like stevia, monk fruit, erythritol, and xylitol. In fact, last August, research firm Nielsen reported that stevia sales had grown 11.9% year over year, while artificial sweetener sales were down an average of 6.6%. And Nielsen data from April 2018 showed that the use of monk fruit was up 20% in foods such as cereal and nutrition bars, and more than 150% in vitamins and lactose-free milk.

stevia plant
Stevia plant

But are they safe? Well, both monk fruit and stevia are considered safe by the FDA, and there don’t seem to be any health risks associated with them. But with that being said, there is little data on monk fruit as of yet. Here are a few things we do know:

  • Animal studies suggest stevia extracts are nontoxic. There also haven’t been any negative reactions reported in humans to date.
  • A study of the effect of stevia extracts on fecal bacteria showed the bacteria balance wasn’t significantly affected.
  • Research also shows stevia doesn’t raise blood sugar and doesn’t cause cavities the way sugars do. It may also help reduce insulin levels compared with artificial sweeteners: a study of 19 lean and 12 obese adults found that having stevia before a meal significantly lowered insulin levels after the meal compared with having aspartame, a sugar-free artificial sweetener.
  • There is a possibility that low-calorie sweeteners cause people to feel hungrier – and thus overeat – when compared with sugar, but the studies so far are conflicting.
  • Monk fruit sweetener contains little, if any, carbohydrates and zero sugar, so it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels.
  • Sugar alcohols, like erythritol, have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels and don’t seem to affect gut bacteria. Erythritol is considered to be safe based on animal studies of toxicity, cancer risk, and reproductive health.
  • Overdoing it on sugar alcohols can cause bloating and other digestive issues, particularly in people with irritable bowel syndrome. 

The bottom line with these sweeteners is that they are probably safe, but you still have to be careful. First of all, they are still processed to be able to resemble something like sugar, and they often contain other ingredients – so “natural” is a subjective term! Second of all, if you’re replacing some of the sugar with them so you can eat more donuts later, you’re kind of missing the point of using them to cut down on your sugar intake. 

So there you go: hopefully we’ve answered your most pressing questions about at least some of the dizzying array of sweet stuff that’s surrounding us. Now, don’t let us scare you away from your seasonal sweets – we still want you to enjoy yourselves and indulge just a little! But we also want you to have all the info so you can make the best choices for you…once the new year arrives! Happy holidays, and tell us the sweet treats you simply can’t resist! Have you found a way to make them healthier or do you go all out?

Co-written by Joanna Bowling

What Does Gift Giving Look Like Around the World?

For many people in the US, this time of year is all about giving. Obviously, though, not everyone in the country, or around the world, celebrates the same holidays, or gives gifts at this time of year. But, whenever it’s done, it’s a very human thing to exchange gifts – we all just do it in our own unique ways. So this gifting season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at gift giving traditions around the world. After all, you never know when the knowledge might come in handy, or you might find a new tradition for you and your loved ones! But at the very least, we can all learn something about what it means to be human by looking at this almost universal impulse.

To Gift Is to Be Human?

People have been giving gifts for thousands of years. Researchers believe that even in primitive Stone Age culture, the giving of gifts like animal teeth or unusual rocks was fairly common. This impulse seems to be hardwired into our DNA: scientists have found that our closest primate cousins, bonobos and chimpanzees, give each other gifts of food and tools. 

But humans have really run with the whole gift giving thing. Once we got the hang of tools, those teeth and rocks could be turned into jewelry, and the act of gift giving evolved around various traditions, rules, and superstitions. In many cases, gift giving revolved around making tribute to powerful people (like to the pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, or the king in Medieval Europe), but it never stopped being a personal impulse, as well. 

But why? Humans are social creatures and we need to feel a connection or a bond with others, and gift giving isn’t just about the stuff being exchanged: it strengthens our bonds. At least, that’s what Marcel Mauss says in his book, The Gift, an important and influential study on gift giving. According to him, the expected reciprocity of gift giving is what binds us together (in fact, there is an implied obligation behind all gift giving), and the gifts we give are actually extensions of ourselves. 

Very interesting! And it makes sense. But how about the traditions that we quirky humans have developed around gift giving? They don’t always seem to make as much sense, right? But they are fascinating, and can tell us a lot about ourselves and our cultures.

Gift Giving Around the World

So what does gift giving, whenever it happens, look like around the world?

hand with the word no on it
In many East Asian countries, it’s the custom to refuse a gift up to three times before accepting it.

I insist

In many East Asian countries, like China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, it’s the custom to refuse a gift up to three times before accepting it. The giver should continue to offer, and downplay the value of the present, insisting that the intended recipient take the gift, which will eventually be accepted. 

No gifts, please

On the other hand, in some Middle Eastern countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia, refusing a gift wouldn’t be because of wanting to seem modest and not greedy. That’s because receiving a gift from anyone but the closest of friends in these countries is considered embarrassing. When gifts are actually given between loved ones, they are thoroughly examined – it’s a sign of appreciation and respect for the gift and giver, who’s expected to carefully select the best quality available. 

A numbers game

In some cultures, you have to be careful about how much of something you give. For example, while even numbers are generally considered lucky in Asian countries like China, the amount of something you give should not contain the numeral 4. This is because the word for “four” sounds like the word “death” in many Asian languages, and is considered unlucky. If you’re giving a gift in India, though, it should be given in an odd amount. 

Give a little bit of yourself

For the Massai people in Kenya and Tanzania, it is considered an honor to spit on a gift before giving it. That might seem rude to people outside of that culture, but the meaning behind it makes all the difference. In Massai culture, water and grass are sacred because they’re what feeds their cows, and so sharing your own precious water with someone you’re giving a gift to is a powerful symbol.

Stay sharpscissors

Or, actually, don’t. In some cultures, like those of certain South American and East Asian countries, giving sharp objects like scissors or kitchen knives is seen as a real no-no. This is because giving anything pointy or sharp represents the severing of ties and relationships. Obviously not the message you want to send when giving a gift! 

More taboos gifts

In addition to sharp objects, there are other items that would be considered inappropriate gifts in other cultures. For example, in China clocks aren’t something you’d give to someone, since in many Chinese dialects, the phrase “give clock” sounds too similar to the phrase “see off into death”. In addition, handkerchiefs are considered inappropriate as they tend to symbolize crying and funerals, and umbrellas symbolize the end of a relationship. And how about this: green hats – in case you were specifically looking at giving one of those – communicate the decidedly unfriendly message that your wife is cheating or your sister is a prostitute. 

In Italy, brooches (and handkerchiefs) are associated with mortality, as clocks and handkerchiefs are in China. In Japan, forget about bringing a potted plant as a hostess gift, since they’re thought to encourage illness. And in Greece, be careful giving an expensive gift, because the receiver will feel obligated to reciprocate with something of equal value. Finally, gold and silk are never given to men in Saudi Arabia, because the Prophet Mohammad declared that those two items could not be worn by men of his nation.

Handle with care 

In some cultures, how you hand over your gift is important. For example, in India and the Middle East, the left hand is considered unclean so givers should use their right hand to give and receive gifts (unless they’re so heavy two hands are required). In East Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam), people always offer or accept a gift with both hands, palms up.

Color me surprisedblack present box

Most cultures wrap presents, but in many places, the color of the wrapping matters. For example, in Asia, white, black, and blue gift wrap isn’t used, since these colors are associated with mourning. And while yellow paper is cheerful and appropriate for celebratory gifts in India, in China it’s covered in black writing and used exclusively for gifts to the dead. In South America, black and purple are avoided because of their association with death and religious ceremonies, and in Italy purple is simply considered unlucky. 

The law of opposites

Many of us are used to giving gifts to the host of a party, whether it’s a housewarming, birthday, Christmas party, or wedding. But in Native American cultures, gifting etiquette is often the opposite to that of any other culture. Traditionally during weddings and other celebrations (birthdays aren’t always recognized), guests are the receivers of gifts rather than the host of the event.

Be direct

In Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to be directly asked for a gift. And if you’re given a gift there, unlike in places where it’s polite to refuse a gift, the worst thing you can do is refuse it, even if you’re worried about the giver’s ability to spare it. Not showing an interest in the giver’s gift is like not showing interest in the giver themselves – just as we talked about above, presents can be seen as an extension of the giver! In addition, gestures of thanks are much preferred over a verbal “Thank you”. These may include jumping up and down, dancing, or even whistling.

Oh, babybaby booties

Have a friend in Europe who’s expecting a baby? In many countries there, including Germany and Spain, don’t expect there to be a big, American-style baby shower: giving gifts before the baby is born is considered unlucky.

Twice is nice

In Egypt, gifts are a way to sustain relationships for the long-term, and ensure that you recognize the presence of friends and family in your life, so they are often given to all sorts of connections – and even relatives of connections – in people’s lives. And, interestingly, gifts are double-wrapped so the receiver gets to open them twice.

No big deal

In some countries, like in Russia, it’s important to consider the value of the gift given, and the timing of giving it. While in Greece giving an expensive gift can feel like an obligation, in Russia, it could be seen as a bribe and have negative feelings attached to it. That means givers downplay the value of gifts – and if they’re refused, they simply leave them behind with the receiver when they part. Gifts given in a business setting should always be given after any meetings or transactions, so they aren’t seen as a bribe. 

Getting back

In Maori culture (the native culture of New Zealand), gift giving can be about giving back, but also getting back. The concept of Utu, translatable generally as “revenge”, is important to this culture, since it’s all about restoring balance and harmony in the world. This means that whenever something good happens to you, you must in turn reciprocate with your own good action. As a result, Utu is central to gift-giving in Māori culture, because reciprocating for someone’s good action can be done in the form of a gift. However, Utu also refers to when you have been wronged by someone, in which case you can demand a gift from them to fulfill this restoration of balance.

The above are just a few of the many rich traditions and customs surrounding gift giving that can be found around the world. As we said, knowing about them might come in handy if you would like to give gifts to people who are outside of your circle. And, as we reflect on all the gift giving we’re doing this year, and the rituals that surround it, let’s remember why we do it, and why we put so much thought behind giving. It’s part of what makes us human – however we do it – and helps bind us together!

Co-written by Joanna Bowling