Opinion: The psychology of indulging in holiday sweets

Google searches for “sugar” always spike in December. Laboratory rats might tell us why.

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The holidays are a time to indulge your sweet tooth. As our appetite for sweets grows, so does our interest in sugar. An analysis of Google searches for “sugar” in Canada reveals that, while searches have grown over time, they always spike in December. What does this tell us about the psychology of indulging in sweet treats? 

The 2020 spike in sugar searches is the largest on record, nearly double the spike in December of 2010. Sugar searches in December of 2021 and 2022, while pronounced, are smaller than in 2020. Perhaps people were unconcerned with their sugar intake during a global pandemic.

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Why have people become more interested in sugar and why do sugar-searches spike in December? A simple explanation is that more people are performing Google searches, so this trend reflects an increase in overall searches. If so, we should see an increase in searches for any term. As an arbitrary comparator, we observe searches for “kale” which, despite growing interest in “superfoods,” do not increase. 

The sugar-search spike in December coincides with the holidays. Around this time sweet treats are plentiful, and people become more interested in the effects of sugar on their health, sugar contents of different foods, and sugar-related recipes. If we assume that interest in sugar grows in December because of the holiday season, sugar searches should also spike in other holiday months. Consistently, the December spike in sugar-searches is accompanied by a Halloween spike in October and an Easter spike in March. 

Specific sugary foods are especially available during the holidays. Consider candy corn at Halloween, candy canes at Christmas and chocolate eggs at Easter. There is some satisfaction in explaining annual spikes in sugar searches by their companion holidays, but what exactly is it about the holidays that piques our interest in sugar? 

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As a neuroscientist, I know the science that answers this question.  

Laboratory rats will consume significantly more vegetable shortening, sugar or even Oreo cookies when these foods are available infrequently. A study conducted at Pennsylvania State University showed that rats with access to vegetable shortening for one hour three times a week consumed significantly more in that one hour than rats with access to vegetable shortening every day.

When these two groups of rats were given the opportunity to press a lever to earn a mouthful of vegetable shortening, and the number of lever presses required to earn that mouthful increased, the everyday group quit lever pressing. The group of rats with access to shortening three days a week continued to lever press hundreds of times for a single mouthful of shortening. In other words, rats with a history of infrequent access to shortening were willing to pay a very high cost (in lever presses) for a single mouthful of shortening. It has been argued that this behaviour in rats resembles binge-eating  and food addiction in humans. 

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In my own research, I test novel pharmacotherapies for their capacity to reduce binge-like eating in rodents. One popular drug, Ozempic, has become widely used for weight loss and to reduce food craving. However, research has found  considerable gastrointestinal side-effects associated with medications like Ozempic that act on glucagon-like peptide receptors in the body and brain. With the holidays coming up, I am reminded that discovering safe and effective ways to promote healthy eating is as important as ever. 

There are a variety of reasons why we become more interested in sugar around the holidays and it can be difficult to understand what fluctuations in Google searches tell us about the people performing the searches. Perhaps though, sweet treats become oh so irresistible when we can only have them infrequently, which is a reminder to indulge responsibly over the holidays.

Milan Valyear is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of psychology at McGill University studying addiction and was previously a public scholar at Concordia University.

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