I have always had a big sweet tooth. As a kid I was always reaching for some form of candy or chocolate. I would tell my parents I had a separate stomach just for dessert even when I was already full after dinner. Kicking the sugar habit is hard, and trust me, I totally get it. It’s sweet, delicious and it gives our bodies a natural high. It took me years to teach my body not to rely on sugar and stop my cravings, but sometimes my sweet tooth comes back and hits me like a ton of bricks. In an ideal world, we would only get sugars from whole foods like fruit, but if you like dessert as much as I do, that is sometimes unrealistic. That’s why I recommend using natural sweeteners in moderation. Though sugar is sugar, natural sugars (see list below) are easier for your body to digest and do not spike your blood sugar as easily.
Did you know the average adult consumes their own body weight in sugar? Think about how much that is! Sugar is completely void of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and enzymes. In fact, this lack of nutrients creates an acidic environment in your body and when you eat sugar your body has to actually pull nutrients from its stores to correct this imbalance. This makes sugar an “anti-nutrient”. Sugar is also highly addictive and is often compared to cocaine! Sugar is not only addictive, but it is linked to obesity, diabetes, dementia, ADHD, heart disease and much more. It is not new news that sugar is unhealthy, but why is it that so many people still consume it like it's going out of style? I think the reason is twofold; 1) we are addicted to it and 2) we still don’t realize that it is still in so many of our foods. That being said, I firmly believe that reducing the refined sugars in our diet is one of the best first steps we can take towards better health.
First, let’s define sugar so we are all on the same page. There is a difference between processed sugar and natural sugar. Although both are carbohydrates and will break down into glucose, there is a vast difference in what they actually provide for your body.
- Processed sugar is a refined form of sugar present in almost all man made foods. This type of sugar is a nutrient-depleting substance, void of any nutrients, with no health benefits, and should be avoided.
- Natural sugar is formed by Mother Nature and is found in fruits and some vegetables. It is rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber for the body. This is the kind you want to consume.
The problem we face today is that sugar is in everything, not just foods you would classify as junk food. Even foods marketed as healthy such as; whole wheat breads, pasta, yogurt and granola bars usually have tons of sugar added to them! Identifying sugar in our foods has also become rather complicated. Food manufacturers rarely list the word ‘sugar’ as an ingredient anymore. Instead they often use a chemical or scientific names to identify it. You can see a list of them here.
So, how do we kick this habit to the curb? Here are some steps to help get you on the right track:
- Eat whole foods. The foods grown in the earth don't contain processed sugar. If they contain natural sugar (ie – fruit) they also contain a lot of other vitamins, nutrients and minerals that are actually beneficial for your health.
- Avoid low-fat foods. Removing the fat from foods, not only lowers their nutritional value, but makes them taste bad, therefore sugar is often added to enhance flavour.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners. The fact they don’t contain calories is irrelevant. They are toxic to our bodies, and actually increase sugar cravings.
- Combine your macronutrients. Making a fresh fruit smoothie or juice can be a really healthy treat, however adding a source of protein and a healthy fat to your carbohydrates will help slow absorption, balance your blood sugar levels and reduce further cravings.
- Eat foods rich in chromium. Chromium is essential for the metabolism of glucose, which helps stabilize blood sugar. Some foods rich in chromium include broccoli, barley, oats, green beans and tomatoes.
- Read the ingredients not the label. If you are purchasing a packaged food, turn it around and read the back. Look at the ingredients list and see what you recognize. If you don’t recognize much, put it back on the shelf. As a rule of thumb, words ending in ‘ose’ are most often sources of sugar. (Need some help with this? Check out my grocery store tour and kitchen clean up services)
- Plan your treats ahead. If you know that you are going to treat yourself to dessert at the party this weekend, or go for ice cream with the kids, you will be less likely to reach for the chocolate bar on Wednesday afternoon at the office.
- Drink water. More often than not, our cravings are not linked to real hunger, but rather to dehydration. Before snacking grab your water bottle.
- Sweeten naturally. If you need a sweet treat, opt for those created in nature. Fresh fruit or sweeteners listed below are your best bets.
- Find the root cause. Easier said than done, but looking to find the root cause of your sugar cravings can help alleviate them.
When fruit just won't suffice here are some natural options to sweeten your food:
- Maple Syrup: In Canada we are lucky that maple syrup is super popular and very reasonably priced. I am lucky to get my maple syrup directly from my uncle’s maple syrup farm, so maple syrup is usually my sweetener of choice. I also like using maple syrup because it contains antioxidants and minerals like manganese, zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. When buying maple syrup make sure you are buying a product that contains 100% pure maple syrup, not maple flavoured corn syrup!
- Honey: While honey is high in fructose, it has many health benefits and contains B vitamins, vitamin C, D and E and it is antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiseptic. Similar to maple syrup not all honey is created equal. When buying honey make sure you read the label to ensure it is raw, unfiltered and 100% pure honey.
- Stevia: Stevia is a super sweet zero calorie herb that does not affect your blood sugar or insulin secretions. 1 tsp of stevia is equivalent to 1 cup of sugar in sweetness. When you are buying stevia it is really important to look for a green powdered stevia which has been made by simply dehydrating stevia leaves. Stevia gets a bad rap because there are a ton of brands that contain fillers, so it can be substituted one for one with sugar.
- Coconut Sugar: Coconut sugar has a glycemic index of 35, which is pretty low for a sweetener considering regular table sugar has a glycemic index of 65. Coconut sugar is made from the sap and nectar of coconut palm trees and it can be substituted one-for-one with regular sugar. It is most similar to brown sugar so it will add a slight caramel-like flavour to your baking.
- Blackstrap molasses: Blackstrap molasses is less processed and has a lower glycemic index than fancy molasses. It also retains the nutrients stripped from sugar cane so it is really high in iron and other minerals.