Staying Whole in a Processed World: Sweets

What’s this series all about? Check out the intro post here: Staying Whole in a Processed World: Introduction

Friends, this was a tough one. I feel rather hypocritical talking about sugar because I’ve fallen off the wagon somewhat. OK, not somewhat. I’m waddling running to catch up to the wagon because it left me in the dust. In the past couple of years I think I’ve done rather well handling sugar and sweets, but since I got pregnant it’s ALL. I. WANT. This newest little girl may just come out sugar-coated.

That being said, I fully intend to jump back on the wagon and take back the reigns this summer. (I’m doing a 30-day paleo cleanse in July if anyone is interested in joining me.) In a way, this blog post was great timing for me as it’s helped me get things back into perspective.

Back to Nature

One theme that I’ve brought up several times in these posts (and what we try to follow when making food choices) is eating food as close as we can to the way it’s found in nature. But what about sugar?

Thousands of years ago when people were hunting and foraging for food the only source of sweetness was from fruit and occasionally some wild honey (if it was available). The preference we have for sweet things isn’t a bodily malfunction or something we need to feel guilty about. That preference was what helped our ancestors determine if their food was healthy or not, as most poisonous things tend to be bitter. It also helps our newborn children with breastfeeding, as breast milk is naturally sweet. (That’s why formulas are sweetened as well.)

There are definitely sources of sweetness that are preferable than others, but more importantly, it’s the quantity in which they’re consumed. Raw honey is a great natural sweetener, but when it gets used by the cupfuls the quantity becomes unnatural.

2 Reasons Why We Avoid Excess Sugar

Aside from the fact that sugar does all kinds of damage to our bodies, here are two more important reasons why we avoid overindulging.

Sugar is addictive

Have you ever gone without sugar for several days? Did you get headaches? Mood swings? I have, and it’s miserable. A couple of the articles I read recently (linked below in Resources) compared the addictive strength of sugar to heroine. Oh, I believe it.

The golden questions, when it comes to sugar, are “How much sugar is OK?” and “What can I use in place of sugar to make things healthier?”

Well, I hate to break it to you, but the most ideal amount of added sugar is none at all. (I’m talking ALL sweeteners here, not just refined white sugar.) The bodies of healthy individuals can tolerate a small amount of added sugar per day (2 T). And I’m afraid there’s no sweetener out there that will make things “healthier”. Natural sweeteners are easier on your body, but large amounts of natural sweeteners still contribute to the addiction of sweet-tasting food.

With any addictive substance (or habit), the more exposure you have to it, the more you want it, and the more you’ll need to keep yourself satisfied. Because my sugar intake has been higher than normal I can feel those effects in my body, and I don’t like it.

Sugar Alters Your Behavior By Altering Your Sense of Taste

For this part, I brought in my go-to healthy guy — the hubs, in case you didn’t know. Take it away Dr. Steve!

When we are infants, we explore our environment with our mouths.  Everything goes in. We come across substances that are pleasing and we search for these.  In a normal and natural world, we can use our tastes to help us navigate this environment.  We can follow our senses to things that provide us with health.  In nature, things that we LIKE are GOOD for us.

In nature, with few exceptions (like honey) sugar is rare.  In nature, when sugar is present (think fruits and vegetables) there are other substances present that our body absolutely requires to be healthy.  Fiber, vitamins, minerals, and water are among these.  We are built to use our natural tastes to guide us to make healthy choices.  This works great unless we’ve changed our environment to include an abundance of things not normally found in nature (like refined sugar). 

The fact is that sugar is a good thing. It’s a signal to the brain that something should be eaten.  It’s a signal to the brain that something is good for us.  For this reason, there are chemical reactions in the brain that are formed when we run across sugar — very pleasurable reactions that reinforce our decision, and, when repeated, form a very strong habit.  In nature, this is a good thing.  We build habits around eating fruits and vegetables and literally crave them.

One of the most important points is that there is no food found in nature that can compete with the sweetness of refined sugars (think fruit-flavored drinks, candy, sodas, chocolate, etc).  When we feed on sweetened “food-like substances”, real foods lose their appeal (how does an apple taste after eating Skittles?).  Fruits and vegetables do not produce as pleasurable a reaction in the brain when compared to sweetened “food-like substances”.  When you feed this process and form such strong habits, this is referred to as infantilization of the taste-buds.

Infantilization of the taste-buds does not allow you appreciate the vast bounty that nature provides because natural foods lack appeal compared to unnatural ones.  Manufacturers and “food” producers know that people will buy more of a product if it is sweeter.  Is there any wonder why Coca-cola is the number one beverage in the world?  Is there any wonder why we are so deficient in fruits and vegetables in the US?  We have infantile palates.  We have strong habits around a reaction in the brain that could not normally exist.  There is interference to the maturation of our senses.  We are being deprived of a very beautiful part of life and a very important sense.

The good news is that this is reversible.  In as little as 30 days, you can absolutely create a new habit and overcome the effects of having infantile senses by eating nothing but real foods that you would see in nature.  It’s that easy.  Yes, you too can enjoy, love, and crave fruits and veggies again.  Here’s to your taste.

8 Ways to Reduce Sugar in Your Diet

Looking for ways to reduce sugar in your diet? Here are some tips that we use.

drink water

If you’re drinking anything other than water on a regular basis, chances are you’re adding a lot of sugar to your diet. (Or artificial sweeteners, which may be just as bad or worse.) Instead of drinking soda, juice, or any other sweetened (or artificially sweetened) beverage, simply drink water or tea (lightly sweetened if needed). If you love your sodas, think of them in terms of a dessert or a special treat.

Why no fruit juice? When juice is removed from the fruit it’s not fruit anymore (even though the bottle will tell you it contains 1-2 servings of fruit!). What you have is a concentrated amount of fruit sugars without the fiber and other healthful benefits from eating the fruit whole. That fruit sugar goes straight to your blood stream instead of slowly being broken down by the body if you were to eat the entire fruit. If you have a juicer at home and enjoy making fruit/vegetable blends, this is considerably better than buying store-bought fruit juice. Watch out for juices “from concentrate”. Most of the time they’ll say “no sugar added”, but fruit juice concentrate itself has loads of sugar as it is.

We also don’t give our kids fruit juice. I used to give them a small, diluted amount when they were very small, but I found they were losing interest in water. (Surprise, surprise… give them a sweetened drink, and they don’t want anything else!) So I quit buying almost all types of juice. The only kind we buy is pomegranate juice to add to our morning smoothies because of its potent nutritional content.

make breakfast healthy

Alright, fess up. I know I’m not the only one who sometimes uses breakfast as an excuse to eat dessert at 8AM. When you think about it, the possibility consuming a lot of sugar in the morning is pretty high. Unless you’re eating eggs and a piece of buttered, whole-grain toast, just about every breakfast cereal, instant oatmeal, pancakes, muffins, waffles, etc. could contain as much sugar as a dessert.

I prefer to make my breakfast healthier so I could splurge on a real dessert later. If you make your breakfast foods from scratch you can control the sugar content. Also, try to use fruit to sweeten up breakfast or at least displace some sweetener you would normally use. We’ve started putting chopped berries and apples over our pancakes and waffles with a drizzle of honey instead of drowning them in maple syrup. As a former “I have to have my pancakes floating in syrup” girl, I’m surprised that I’m satisfied with such a simple topping! It works, though. Save the over-the-top desserts masquerading as breakfast for special days. Like Christmas morning.

cook & bake from scratch

It’s easy to think of how much sugar we’ve consumed in terms of desserts and sweets, but sugar is in almost everything these days. Several years ago as I was starting to pay more attention to ingredient labels, I went to buy a canister of bread crumbs and found that they contained high-fructose corn syrup. Bread crumbs, for pete’s sake! I think that crossed the line for me, and I became more adamant about making things from scratch.

If you’re inclined to grab the bakery cakes and store-bought cookies while shopping, consider making those things from scratch. If you have to work for your dessert, chances are you’ll be eating fewer of them. Unless, however, you have a passion for baking…. then you might want to try baking less often. :)

try a cleanse

A couple of years ago I went on a pretty strict diet for several weeks that was similar to paleo (but more strict). Yes, my goal was to lose some weight, but I discovered another great benefit — getting all of that sugar (and starchy mess) out of my system. Once it was out, I was able to listen to my body better and feel the effects when I started eating it again. It helped me recognize when I ate too much (whereas before I had a much higher tolerance for it). I’ve tried to hold on to that sensitivity (not only to sugar, but to starchy, carb-heavy foods as well) because it keeps me in check.

boost protein and fat

If your diet has a good amount of protein and fat (particularly good saturated fats) you’ll be satisfied longer and less likely to be hungry between meals. (And less likely to reach for a quick, sugary something.)

quality, not quantity

Normally I wouldn’t encourage snobbery, but I think it’s OK to be a dessert snob. If you’re going to indulge in something with a lot of sugar (and possibly do damage to your body in the process), make sure it’s worth it! If you absolutely need a chocolate fix in the afternoon (ahem, I can totally relate), buy a bar of the highest quality chocolate you can find and eat just a piece a day. How likely are you to eat an entire bar of rich chocolate in one sitting?

Confession: before our clean eating conversion, I used to buy tubs of fat-free cool whip and stick them in the freezer. Then I’d scoop it out like ice cream and top it with fat-free chocolate syrup. Oh, was I proud of myself. I’d managed to find a “healthy” alternative to an ice cream sundae! Little did I know I was filling my body with hydrogenated oils (cool whip) and LOADS of sugar.

Conventional thinking has led us to believe that eating more dessert is OK if it’s low in fat. (Or even low in sugar which is loaded with artificial sweeteners.) *Forehead slap* Let’s raise our standards, shall we? When it comes to dessert, a small amount of the good stuff is usually better than a lot of the so-called “healthy” alternatives.

define “special occasions”

I’ve mentioned before that I only make desserts for special occasions, but lately the term “special occasion” has been applying to any strong craving that I get. Not good. It’s good to define specifically what a special occasion is.

For us, it’s birthdays (I have a birthday cake sitting in my fridge as we speak — my oldest is 5 today!), major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Valentine’s Day), some social/family gatherings. Usually after a night of indulging, we’re ready to get back to our normal eating habits, but for those moments we enjoy those treats! If we’ve been eating well, there’s no reason to feel guilty about indulging a little.

keep it out of the house

Keeping treats and unhealthy snacks out of the house seems to work for us as well. I’ve quit trying to rely on my self control to pace myself when it comes to treats. (Especially lately…) When it comes to candy and store-bought sweets, it seems a little wasteful to toss the excess in the trash, but I’d rather risk being wasteful than putting that stuff in my body for the sake of frugality. Other than an occasional carton of ice cream in the fridge or a jar of Nutella in the cupboard, our home is relatively candy/sweets free.

I recently came across a fantastic  blog post on 100 Days of Real Food talking about those “oh, it’s only once a year” occasions. There are a lot more than you think, and if you’ve got a list of 25 “once a year” occasions, you could be indulging more than you anticipated. Like Lisa, I believe that even if we never gave our kids candy or any other processed treat or snacks at home, they’d manage to get it from outside sources. It happens all the time.

If You Need to Substitute. . .

There are times when I’m not making dessert, yet I need a little sweetener — herbal tea, homemade granola, steel-cut oats, some salad dressings, just to name a few. These are the sweeteners I use most frequently:

Stevia

Stevia is a great option for a natural sweetener, and it’s potent, so a little goes a long way. Stevia comes from an actual plant (I’m sure you could grow some yourself!), but you can find it in liquid or powdered form. There is some debate about whether or not products like Truvia and the white powder stevia extract are really natural because they’ve undergone quite a bit of processing. If you have a long way to go until your diet is clean, I think you could save those hairs to split for later.

raw honey

Raw (preferably organic) honey is great to use as well. I like to use this in tea and sometimes in my steel-cut oats. We also drizzle honey over our pancakes instead of using maple syrup.

real maple syrup

Maple syrup is a bit more processed than raw honey. I’m talking 100% maple syrup, not maple-flavored corn syrup that constitutes most of what’s on the shelves. When they extract the syrup from the trees, it has to be boiled down considerably, so in essence, it’s the concentrated version of what you’d find in nature. I find it very sweet, though, so a small glug goes a long way. I like to use it when I make granola and sometimes for steel-cuts oats. I try not to use it on pancakes because it’s easy to eat a lot of it in one sitting. Plus it’s expensive

Coconut Sugar

This is a great option that replaces white sugar in baked goods. It has a lower glycemic index, too. However, it will turn your baked goods a medium shade of brown. Just a heads up.

agave (yay or nay?)

I jumped on the agave wagon when it started becoming popular. It sounded like the perfect sweetener — natural, yet didn’t make your blood sugar spike like other sweeteners. After researching it a little more, I found that it’s not all its cracked up to be. Agave that is naturally processed (the way it’s supposed to be) is great, but most all of the commercially sold agave nectar isn’t processed that way. Commercial agave nectar is highly processed, contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, and may even contain chemicals leftover from processing.

I ran across a blog post on Food Renegade recently that explained the issues surrounding agave nectar very well.

Our verdict? Nay.

Summary

1. How much refined sugar is OK? As close to none as you can get.

2. You know you’re on the right track when you can taste the natural sweetness in fruits and vegetables.

3. If you’re diet is at least 80% clean and free of refined sugars, there’s no reason to feel guilty about occasional indulgences. Enjoy them!

Assignment!

One of the best things I ever did (and what I plan on doing again) was go without sugars (and starches) for several weeks. Yes, it was hard initially, but it allowed me (like Steve was saying) to really taste the food I was eating. It also made it easier to read my body’s signals.

1. Try going two weeks without any type of sweetener, natural or not, and see how your body reacts. Do you have headaches? Are you cranky? (After the withdrawals have subsided) Do fresh fruits and vegetables taste better to you? Do you have more energy? How do you feel after you start eating sweets again? Do you notice a difference?

Resources

Related Articles

143 Reasons Sugar Ruins Your Health – Nancy Appleton, Ph.D (link to related blog post, download PDF)
Is Sugar Toxic? – New York Times online article
Various articles about Aspartame – Mercola.com
Why Agave Nectar May Be Worse than High Fructose Corn Syrup – Mercola.com
Dangers of Sugar – Mercola.com
More Evidence that Sugar Feeds Cancer – Mercola.com
Zapping Sugar Cravings – Weston A. Price Foundation website
Replacing Refined Sugars with Natural Sugars – Weston A. Price Foundation website
Why We Crave – Weston A. Price Foundation Website

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Other posts in this series:

Introduction
Fruits & Vegetables
Whole Grains
Getting Your Protein
Healthy Fats
Processed Food

Photo Credits: Shutterstock, Perry’s Plate (granola photo)