Santa’s Cookie Conundrum

Santa Claus delivered a sleigh full of toys to girls and boys in a snowy fantasy version of Pacific County in this illustration for the Chinook Observer's 1904 Christmas edition. It's a wonder Santa's still around, considering all the sugary treats he eats.

PACIFIC COUNTY — It can be tough to disappoint someone as sweet as Santa Claus, but the cookies could be killing him.

A hard-hitting Chinook Observer investigation found that while only about 21,900 of Washington’s 7 million residents live in Pacific County, their contributions to Santa’s less-than-stellar diet can really add up. By a conservative estimate, Santa might easily consume hundreds of pounds of cookies while distributing gifts to the south Washington coast.

Nutrition experts are increasingly convinced that sugar is more harmful than previously thought, and that means Santa’s round-the-world cookie-binge could be putting his sleigh on a collision course with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It took a combination of federal data, “Googling” and educated guessing to figure out how much locals are contributing to Santa’s cookie conundrum. Assuming Santa only visits families with kids, there are 5,707 Pacific County households where he might make a stop, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, a Pew Research Center poll found that 8 percent of Americans don’t celebrate Christmas. That whittles his local itinerary down to a mere 5,250 stops.

Regrettably, there’s no hard data about what percentage of families follow the cookie tradition, or how many cookies they set out. Based on the results of a less-than-scientific newsroom survey, a Chinook Observer reporter decided half of all Christmas-celebrating families leave a snack for St. Nick. In all, Santa would make 2,625 snack-stops in Pacific County.

If local families set out three cookies each, Santa would eat a total of 7,875 cookies.

A cookie made with a typical cookie-scoop weighs about 1.25 ounces and is 3 inches across. Assuming those dimensions, Santa’s local cookie supply would be around 1,969 feet long, if someone were to line them up side by side. They would weigh around 615 pounds.

If each of the 2,625 households also gave him an eight-ounce glass of milk, he would have to drink 164 gallons in our little county alone.

Put another way, the cookie trail would be three-and-a-half times the height of the Seattle Space Needle, or as long as five-and-a-half football fields, according to “The Measure of Things,” a search engine that provides size and weight comparisons. The cookies would weigh roughly as much as one adult male reindeer and one juvenile reindeer. And hopefully Santa is a thirsty guy, because he would have to drink about four bathtubs full of milk.

Santa may be jolly about the prospect eating all those treats, but his cardiologist is probably not. Around 92 percent of Americans are eating too much sugar, and 10 percent are eating way too much sugar, with deadly consequences, according to 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found a strong link between heavy consumption of foods with added sugars, and deaths from heart disease.

The results also suggested that some widely-used guidelines for sugar consumption may be too generous. Participants who ate moderate amounts of added sugar had significantly higher death-rates than those who ate just a little, and the 10 percent of subjects who ate the most sugar had nearly triple the risk of dying from heart disease.

Many people don’t realize how much sugar they eat, the study said, because there is a lot of added sugar in processed foods that aren’t necessarily sweet, such as bread, peanut butter, canned soup and “healthy” beverages like Vitamin Water. Cookies and other “grain-based desserts” are a major culprit — they account for about 13.7 percent of the added sugar Americans consume.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conveniently provides an enormous database of nutritional information for researchers — and reporters who want to give Santa a hard time about his eating habits. According to their figures, by the time Santa plows through his 7,875 Pacific County cookies this year, he will have eaten about 179 pounds of sugar — roughly the weight of an adult kangaroo — and 136 pounds of fat — equivalent to the weight of two dalmatians.

Nutrition experts say an adult male should eat, at most, nine teaspoons of sugar a day, or about 26 pounds per year, but the average American eats roughly 150 pounds, or six times the recommended amount. Santa would consume almost seven times as much in Pacific County alone.

Historians believe the practice of leaving cookies for Santa was inspired by ancient European traditions, but didn’t really catch on in the U.S until about the 1930s. That means Santa has been indulging his notorious sweet-tooth for almost a century without any apparent consequences to his health. But Columbia Memorial Hospital nutrition expert Van Lovett doesn’t think it would be a good idea to follow his example.

“Pretty much all of Santa’s calories are coming from fat and sugar, which is not a healthy diet,” Lovett said. “What makes a cookie delicious is that you don’t have one every day.”

She explained that sugar doesn’t provide sustainable energy. Regular consumption puts a person on a blood-sugar roller coaster that can eventually cause diabetes and tooth decay, among other things.

Santa “couldn’t even probably consume that much I would think,” Lovett said. He “would probably start sweating and maybe throw up. That’s a lot of sugar.”

Lovett said she sees a lot of patients who have a tough time cutting out sugar. She advises them to taper off, and to allow for occasional treats.

“Food is joy too,” she said. “You don’t want to take the joy out of it, because it’s not going to be sustainable.”

With only about 0.2 percent of the state’s population, Pacific County is a very minor contributor to Santa’s potential cookie calamity. If he consumed sweet snacks at the same rate at every stop in Washington, Santa would eat almost 3 million cookies, and drink about 82,000 gallons of milk.

If he does that, he’s going to need a bigger sleigh and a whole lot more reindeer. The cookies would weigh around 102,500 tons, or about the same as 1,000 blue whales. The milk would fill 450 hot tubs, or 5,500 kegs.

By the time Santa plows through his 7,875 Pacific County cookies this year, he will have eaten about 179 pounds of sugar — roughly the weight of an adult kangaroo — and 136 pounds of fat — equivalent to the weight of two dalmatians.

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