I love sweet things. That much is probably clear to you from my many recipes that are of the sweet kind. I’m trying to reduce the amount of sweetener I use in recipes even further, so you’re about to see some changes around here.
I’m adding a new tag to recipes (as requested by a few readers): low-sugar. This is to inspire me to make more low-sugar recipes, and make it easy for you to find and make low-sugar meals and snacks.
There are two sweet, sugar-free treats for you in this post. First, an interview with a funny, bright light, Mary Purdy, MS, RD, Integrative Clinical Nutritionist. Second, a quick snack with one ingredient.
Disclaimer here: Mary has recently helped me figure out how to increase protein in my diet since I eat very little animal protein and she’s also helped my older son figure out how to gain optimal nutrition while keeping his Crohn’s at bay, all while living the college life—not an easy task!
Ladies and gentlemen, I present Mary Purdy…
Does sugar play a role in our health or should we just “ditch it and run?”
First of all, let’s define what is meant by “sugar!” Many foods have naturally occurring “sugars” in them: grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, dairy etc. (“lactose” is a sugar in milk; “fructose” is a sugar in fruit). Essentially these foods all contain carbohydrates which eventually get broken down into sugars or “glucose” which our body uses for fuel, so we do need these sugars to survive. “Table sugar” or “sucrose” is a highly refined form of sugar which, while giving us an initial energy boost, offers little to no nutritional value. In fact, because the body has to use nutrients to process any food that it consumes, we actually wind up with a deficit of vitamins and minerals when we consume sugar, especially in large amounts.
This is why you might feel somewhat depleted and sluggish after a sugar heavy meal, particularly one that is devoid of those nutrients which I mentioned earlier are essential for our bodies to process food. Remember how your parents tried to get you to eat a balanced dinner before you dove into the cookie jar? Additionally consuming sugary foods (cakes, cookies, sodas, candy) can raise the body’s blood sugar which creates an inflammatory environment and is associated with many current chronic health issues we are seeing today: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and many more.
If I told people to “ditch it and run” I might get a lot of folks rebelling, so I really encourage minimizing it as much as possible and consuming it on occasion. Many people have a very charged relationship with sweets, so it’s important to look at the emotional aspects of why we turn to sugar as well. For many it can be a comfort. It’s helpful to make sure people are in touch with that before they jump ship, otherwise it usually backfires. My suggestion is if you do consume the refined sugar stuff, shoot for keeping it to about 5-10grams/day which is about 1 or 2 teaspoons.
How do the natural sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup, and stevia, compare to granulated sugars like brown sugar, cane sugar, and corn syrup?
From a general caloric standpoint 1 tablespoon of sugar and maple syrup, honey, molasses, brown rice syrup all have 60 calories and 15 grams of sugar. However, maple syrup (Grade B) also has prebiotics, honey (especially raw) has some anti-inflammatory properties, molasses contains iron and potassium, and brown rice syrup contains a little bit of fiber. Most people notice that these natural sweeteners have a different effect on them than sugar does. A great way to test this is to actually try a spoonful of sugar on an empty stomach one day and a spoonful of molasses the next. See what difference you feel! Studies show that while caloric value is the same, the effect on our body’s blood sugar is different and the natural sweeteners don’t take you on that same rollercoaster ride that white table sugar often does.
In my opinion, brown sugar and cane sugar are essentially table sugar. There are some less processed granulated sugars like date sugar, coconut sugar, palm sugar, turbinado sugar, and sucanat, all of which are a notch above the white stuff, as they retain a small portion of nutrient value. If a recipe calls for granulated sugar and you feel like it needs that kind of sweetness, (and the food chemistry properties that accompany a granulated sweetener instead of a liquid sweetener) I’d go for those more natural granulated over white table sugar, but I’d still recommend using less in the recipe and using minimal amounts overall.
The less sugar you begin to use, the more sweet things actually taste! Pretty amazing. And speaking of sweet, my advice is to avoid corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. We are seeing more and more detrimental health effects from these sweeteners, especially in large quantities. When there are other healthier choices, spend the extra $1.50 and go for the good stuff! You’ll likely need less.
How does sugar affect our body, particularly the immune system and digestive tract?
I want to be sure to assure folks that a little bit of sugar on a daily basis is not going to cause major health issues, but the problem is, there are very few people who only consume a “little bit of sugar” on a daily basis and many are not even aware that they are consuming as much as they are. Sugar is in everything and it’s quite easy to feel drawn to the sweet and the immediate effects if gives. As I mentioned above , sugar draws upon the body’s own reserves of nutrients in order to get processed so it ultimately leaves us depleted. Sugar also actually suppresses the immune system by reducing the number of T-cells (cells produced by our body that fight infection) and reducing the vitamins that help us to cope with stress. Additionally, bacteria loves to feed on sugar. So when we eat a lot of sugar, the bad bacteria that lurks around in our guts get a lot of tasty meals which can result in an overgrowth and result in digestive distress, bloating, gas, and impaired nutrient absorption.
Very often, foods high in sugar replace foods high in fiber which feeds the good bacteria in our gut. So what we wind up with is a very well fed batch of bad bacteria and underfed good bacteria. Guess who wins the battle in your body that ensues? The bad bacteria. Since the immune system is also reliant on our benficial bacteria to help keep out invaders, this is another way sugar can be the cause of an impaired immune system.
To me, however, the biggest danger with sugar comes from its impact on our blood sugar levels. Our body uses sugars as fuel, remember, but when there is an excessive amount consumed, the blood sugar is elevated which puts great strain on the body’s endocrine system as it struggles to produce enough insulin to direct the sugar into the right place. Over time, this can lead to blood sugar issues and cardiovascular disease. High amounts of sugar in the blood means high amount of insulin which creates a very inflammatory environment and may also lead to the growth of abnormal cells in certain individuals putting them at a higher risk for cancers.
Plus, when too much sugar is in the blood stream, it tends to stick to proteins creating something called “advanced glycation end products or “AGEs” which prevent proteins from doing what they need to do and results in accelerated aging. Additionally, when the sugar isn’t utilized by the body, it can get stored as fat and very often as fat IN the liver which is associated with a host of other health issues.
I have a mean sweet tooth but I try to balance that out by using natural sweeteners. And I’ve noticed the less sweet foods I eat, the less I crave them. Can you share any reliable techniques to reduce the amount of sugar in the diet?
When people tell me they have a big sweet tooth or are “addicted to sugar”, I think it is imperative to get a sense of what else might be going on for them. Almost always, people crave sugar for one of 5 reasons.
- Lack of protein in the diet
- Lack of fat in the diet
- Lack of fiber in the diet which helps us feel fuller and provides nutrients that our body needs
- Emotions or stress connection
I cannot tell you how helpful it is to make sure meals (even snacks) are balanced with these major “macro nutrients”: fat and protein – particularly at the morning meal. The body is so smart and when it doesn’t feel satiated (which protein and fat do for us) it automatically goes for the thing that will give us the most amount of energy with the least amount of effort and that is almost always some kind of refined carbohydrate: cookies, chips, bread, cake etc.
Getting fiber-rich complex carbohydrates (like whole grains/seeds: quinoa, kasha, vegetables, fruits) can also help to insure that blood sugars don’t get overly elevated which very often come crashing down making one crave the kinds of foods that caused the elevation in the first place.
Water/fluids are also supremely helpful with sugar cravings. We often mistake our own dehydration for an insatiable craving. Next time you feel a sugar craving, try having a huge glass of water first and see if the urge dies down at all. If not, take a look at the meals you had earlier. If they seem balanced with fat, fiber and protein, next take a look at your stress or emotional state. When we are stressed, hormones often get released that make us crave high energy (calorie) dense foods. Additionally, many of us associated sweets with reward and pleasure. Sugar stimulates the reward center of the brain so it makes sense that we desire that experience when feeling low.
Another strategy that I have also found to be extraordinarily helpful to those sugar cravers is to add new flavors to the diet: spices, herbs, new foods, foreign fruits, different vegetables and even condiments. When we stimulate our palate with new tastes, we stop craving the old. The more frequently we eat the same foods, the more likely we crave the same old stuff. But when we add something totally new, our taste buds get pretty excited about the experience and this helps to result in more feelings of satiety. Sprinkle cinnamon on cereal, throw basil into a smoothie, toss some curry into those eggs, try out a new vinegar on your salad, roast your seeds and nuts.
Experiment! I promise that you will see a marked difference in your sugar cravings. There are so many naturally sweet foods to try as well: fruits both fresh and dried, sweet veggies like beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and even onions (especially caramelized.) Roast a veggie with some cinnamon or the Indian spice “garam masala” and you may even feel like you had dessert.
Great tips, Mary. Thanks for taking the time to dish on sugar!
Mary Purdy, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition from Bastyr University. She provides medical nutrition therapy and nutritional counseling at her Private Practice at the Seattle Healing Arts Center and is a Clinical Supervisor at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health. She also offers an online detox program and regular corporate wellness presentations. She has been featured on KUOW and KIRO News, is on the board of Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine and is the Past President of the Greater Seattle Dietetic Association. Her website is Nourishing Balance. Mary also offers self-managed and group 10 Day Detoxes online, which are food based with supplemental support and include all kinds of sweet and savory foods and NO sugar!
And now here’s a sugar-free, naturally sweet snack that takes just a few minutes to make.
- 1⁄2 cup (32 g) unsweetened flaked coconut
- Preheat your oven to 300°F (150°C, or gas mark 2).
- Spread the coconut flakes across a baking sheet and bake for a few minutes or until they start to turn golden.
- Place the coconut flakes in a skillet over a medium heat, and toast, stirring constantly, for a few minutes, until the flakes begins to turn golden.
Makes 1/2 cup of chips