How to make sugar your ally
When it comes to sugar and health, the news isn’t all bad. But the truth is, with sugar there’s a huge amount of conflicting information out there as to what truly qualifies as “healthy.” It’s a vital question that is not taken seriously enough and, in fact, largely unanswered. So let’s nail down the essential facts and the how-to’s on how to get your sugar intake on the right track for truly enhancing your health—for both the body and mind. At first, applying this information to your diet may not be easy, but I promise it’s not too difficult either, especially when you have the facts at hand! Believe that you can do this, and I’m confident you can. So, let’s jump in and start with the upside of the topic.
The Drum Roll...
Sugar is important for our health! It’s fuel—aka glucose. And a big reason it’s important is that it’s fuel that is quickly available to the body. While complex carbohydrates and fats can take hours to break down into fuel, sugar is put to use almost instantly. Now for the bad news. As a society, we’ve gone way down the wrong path with sugar. The sugar most people are ingesting today is refined sugar. This kind of sugar creates a scary amount of wear and tear on the body.
The Proof is in the Over-Sweetened Pudding
The seriousness of this state of affairs can’t be overstated. Sugar, as it’s found in many foods these days, is much worse than people think. Since it’s so prevalent, most people just take the presence of sugar without concern for how harmful it really can be. The fact is, modern media have done an extraordinary job of making sugar look innocent. Showing attractive looking people drinking soda is deceitful irony.
The weakening effect sugar has on the body really deserves a book of its own. The data is abundant, and very real. Do an online search yourself. Let’s spotlight a few of the most common detriments. Obesity—stuffing fat cells with high-glycemic calories is the body’s natural defense to remedy the dangers of spiking blood sugar levels, from which come...diabetes—the body’s intelligence with managing insulin levels can essentially be wiped out by sugar. Cancer—sad but true, processed sugar speeds the production of mutated cells. Osteoporosis—the body attempts to remedy the extreme acid-forming nature of sugar with calcium, and, yup, it’s the precious calcium that comprises our bones. Digestive disorders—growth of fungus that can cause holes in the intestines? Ew, who wants that?!
Numerous emotional and behavioral issues (especially with children) have clinically been linked to sugar. As for other vitally important mechanisms of the body such as hormone balance, the immune system, and the neurological system, they can all be compromised by processed sugar. And the familiar energy-crash that sugar creates essentially reflects all of the above maladies, making sugar a life-force depressant. This is a reflection of the simple fact that sugar makes the body weaker, thus more susceptible to disease.
The big challenge in all of this is that processed sugar is in seemingly everything. You’ll even find it in all those “natural” foods, such as cereal, crackers, yogurt, baked goods, and all the “low- fat” snacks—aisle after aisle of them and, sad to say, even at your natural food store. Even worse are the sweetened packaged drinks such as soda, energy drinks, sport drinks, and bottled tea. The manufacturers of these foods and drinks are clever, though. You won’t necessarily find the word “sugar” in the ingredients. What you’ll see instead is something like “evaporated cane juice.” What’s evaporated cane juice? You guessed it: sugar.
What really seals the deal on qualifying sugar as disastrous is the simple fact that it’s chemically addictive. The common thought is no, not for me, but it’s true, and there’s no way around it. If you have sugar more than occasionally, I dare you to quit 100-percent cold-turkey. A few days into it, tell me you’re not feeling an intense craving. Just a heads up: withdrawal symptoms, such as fatigue and headaches, are likely to come with it. Essentially the liver, kidneys, and the gastrointestinal system are detoxing. (If you take this dare, by the way, this would be a great time to detox your pantry, too, by tossing out all processed sugar.) In most cases, the sugar detox runs its course in about two weeks. At the end of it, it’s likely you’ll never want to go back. That’s your body’s wisdom kicking in now that the sugar spell is broken!
The Good News
Okay, with all that said, let’s revisit the good news. Then we’ll find a way to overcome the bad news. Your body needs sugar, so let’s give it sugar. Let’s feed that sweet tooth of yours. We all have one. It’s a law of human biology. But let’s be smart about how we do it. A craving for sweets can be friend or foe. We don’t need to give up sugar; we just need to use the right sugar—the elite sugar. It’s about getting the sugars that come with benefits. We’re talking nutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes!
Where can we find elite, truly healthy sugar? That’s easy: the produce section of your local grocery store. Fruit! This is where the elite sugar hangs out. Matching your sugar intake primarily with fruit is the fundamental solution behind getting the whole dilemma resolved! It’s fruit that’s the key ally for keeping that sweet tooth of yours happy, helping you steer clear of the processed stuff that makes everything weaker in the name of entertaining taste-buds.
There’s a bit more to it though. First, not all fruit sugar is the same. Some fruits are indeed more health enhancing than others. Let’s cut to the chase and identify the elites. The elite fruits are primarily berries. We’re talking blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries, to name a few of the most common ones. Color is often reflective of a plant food’s nutrients. Another great thing about berries is that they’re generally low-glycemic. This means the sugar in these foods is slower burning and therefore gentler in raising and lowering your blood sugar. Processed sugar, by contrast, is extremely high-glycemic, quickly burning and sending your blood sugar up and down and all over the place.
There are some higher glycemic fruits, too. Tropical fruits like bananas, pineapple, papaya, and mango are high glycemic, relative to berries. But that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. These tropical fruits still have nutrients and are in no way comparable to the processed stuff. In moderation, they can serve an excellent role. I find them to be perfect as sweeteners in smoothies. Somewhere in the middle of the glycemic scale you have the other fruits you might think of: pears, apples, oranges, watermelon, etc. They’re all good for you.
The key here is that having fruit in the morning and again in the afternoon will keep your sweet tooth happy throughout the day. You’ll be a lot less tempted to grab a donut from the break room or order a sugar-filled dessert at lunch. We all know the problem with trying to have just one cookie or one small slice of chocolate cake. Generally, the struggle for discipline turns into a landslide of overdoing it. With whole unprocessed fruits, it’s hard to overdo it and the margin for error is wide, especially with those berries. But many fruits, like anything in life, require some degree of moderation. What qualifies as moderation is different for everyone, but I believe in our body’s instincts when it comes to healthy unprocessed plant foods. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating three bananas, but when we’re talking sugar, it’s more a matter of quality than quantity. (Of course the same goes for complex carbs, protein, and fat too.) Between the sugar in fruit and processed sugar, there’s no comparison.
When it comes to whole foods like fruit, we have an instinctive sense as to what the right amount is, a sense that unfortunately becomes distorted by processed sugar that is nowhere in the scope of the body’s instincts. Thankfully we’re on our way to restoring this wisdom of the body!
What about fruit juice? Well, the whole fruit is always better. Juicing eliminates some of the nutrients and all of the fiber. Beware of the common pasteurized juices at your supermarket, which is most of them. And don’t be fooled by the bottled “superfood” or “health” drinks with overdosing amounts of pasteurized fruit juice.
Besides the high sugar content, the pasteurization process in and of itself isn’t good. Pasteurization is necessary for lengthening shelf life; these refrigerated and bottled juices might be on the shelf for weeks or even months. Without pasteurization, they’ll ferment in just a few days. Pasteurization means essentially cooking the juice, torching the nutrients, and eliminating the otherwise awesome health benefits. If you’re going to drink fruit juice, stick with raw and fresh-pressed juice. Even still, fruit juice of any sort without the original fiber of the whole fruit is going to give you a burst of glucose. So unless you become physically active soon after drinking it, your body will store that fuel someplace that will be less than flattering. Thus my preference for the whole fruit.
Among fruit drinks, my top pick is a smoothie using whole fruit with its fiber and nutrients—an especially great choice in the morning. You need fuel first thing in the morning, and your body will respond especially well to a smoothie which is easy to digest as the gastrointestinal system is just revving up. Here’s my favorite: a frozen banana in the blender with pure water and a round tablespoon of raw almond butter. This is a perfect opportunity to use Infinity Greens. The energy from the fruit and superfoods will be sustained by the healthy fats from the almond butter for a slow burn that will last for hours. A blend like this is ideal because the balance between sugar, fat, and protein will smooth out the natural ups and downs of your blood sugar.
Fruit sugars are infinitely better than processed sugars, but they still affect the level of your blood sugar. What goes up must come down. But a well-balanced smoothie with the right fruit, protein, and fat together can be the perfect low-calorie, energy-sustaining, nutrient-dense breakfast!
The Right Combination
As with smoothies, here’s a great thing to do with fruit: combine it with protein-fats, like nuts and seeds. As we talked about, sugar produces the quick energy, and protein-fat sustains it. Think up your own combinations. A banana split? Hmm...think a little harder. How about strawberries and yogurt? Much better. Raw sprouted almonds and prunes? Perfect. Apples and raw almond butter? Now you’re talking. Of course fruits don’t necessarily have to be eaten with anything else (and are still great to have by themselves), but when combined with protein-fats, you’ll satisfy your appetite much longer. Note: it’s better for fruits not to be combined with other complex carbohydrates, like grains and vegetables. This combination produces fermentation in the gastrointestinal system which isn’t good if done on a routine basis. Once in awhile, no big deal. Best to have your fruit first, which digests in just minutes, then the bigger meal shortly after.
Now let’s revisit the processed sugars. Some actually aren’t so bad. Here are my top picks. Maple syrup. We’re talking tree sap, not the Aunt Jemima kind. She may have been a sweet lady, but her syrup is little more than high-fructose corn syrup which is in the same category as white sugar and is no better than terrible. High fructose corn syrup is especially common in bottled drinks. It’s a high-consequence processed sugar, particularly with obesity, and ironically makes up a significant portion of the average American’s daily calories. Real maple syrup on the other hand is rich in minerals and is perfectly fine when used in moderation. Raw honey has my golden stamp of approval. Unheated honey has an immune boosting, health-enhancing value of its own.
Coconut sugar is up there, too. Like maple syrup, coconut sugar is tree sap, only dried. It’s mineral-rich and low-glycemic. The brilliance of coconut sugar is you can use it gram for gram in recipes where you would otherwise use processed sugar, only the flavor is better and the calories are fewer.
Other middle of the road processed sugars include brown rice syrup, yacon syrup, and lucuma berry syrup. The once-popular agave nectar and sucanat are further down the totem pole. Sucanat is a whole cane sweetener that retains the original molasses, making it better than processed sugar. Molasses separated from cane sugar is actually mineral-rich and is the one perk of cane plants. Sucanat isn’t as popular as processed sugar, because not everyone is fond of the taste of molasses. Plus it’s triple the cost of white sugar. Although it’s better, it’s still high-glycemic and not exactly health-forming. What about brown sugar? Brown sugar has a sprits of molasses added back to the processed sugar, making it no better than white sugar.
If you’re looking for a zero-calorie sweetener, try stevia (not Splenda). Stevia is a natural leaf with a sweet flavor and no unhealthy qualities. I recommend green stevia powder which is simply the whole ground-up stevia leaf. The common bleached stevia with maltodextrin isn’t necessarily bad, but the less processed product is always better.
What about Aspartame? Marketed as NutraSweet, Equal, and other innocent names, it’s been shown to be chemically addictive. During my years of teaching nutrition at the Ashram Health Retreat, I would always see the diet soda drinkers having a rough detox experience. Diet soda is really among the worst things you can put into your body. Xylitol: beware of it as a sweetener. This is sugar alcohol extracted from corn through an award-winning amount of processing. It really shouldn’t be ingested for the simple reason that it draws water from the body into the intestines which is obviously not good for more than just a few reasons. Same goes with sorbitol.
A Note about Chocolate
As I would be talking about sugar in my nutrition classes, there would inevitably be someone wearing a look of mild despair who would ask for my thoughts about chocolate. Well cacao in chocolate products can actually have beneficial nutritive properties, including the presence of soluble fiber, magnesium, healthy saturated fats, and antioxidants. Theobroma in chocolate is a stimulant, making it something to enjoy only in moderation, but all in all, the right chocolate can be a healthy food. This would always make everyone in the class breathe a sigh of relief. But are we talking about chocolate cake here? Nope, definitely not. The wear and tear from the over-saturation of sugar and flour unquestionably outweigh the pluses of the chocolate. And sorry, we’re not talking chocolate candy bars, either. Your average chocolate candy bar, loaded with sugar, hypnotizes those taste buds, making you eat the whole thing, and more.
In dark chocolate (labeled eighty-five percent cacao), a one ounce serving has only three grams of sugar. This level of sugar almost qualifies more as a “flavor” than a sweetener, making it less of a big deal in my opinion. However, if you search enough at your local natural food store, you can likely find dark chocolate sweetened with coconut sugar or honey. Now we’re talking.
Another plus of dark chocolate is that it satisfies that sweet tooth craving, even with a very small amount. One ounce generally does the trick. Better than dark chocolate is the original chocolate bean. These are generally available at your local store crushed up into nibs. With most high-quality brands, the nibs are raw and unheated, preserving the antioxidant value. There are plenty of ways to enjoy them, like in oatmeal or a smoothie. Try them with dried fruit. Even by themselves, I think nibs are tasty. Raw unsweetened chocolate is also available in the form of powder. Why not create your own chocolate dessert using only premium ingredients? I have a few recipes to share with you here.
Making it Easy
Your body needs natural sugar and now you know the right places to find it. First thing tomorrow, make yourself a smoothie. Throw the glazed donut away, along with the “natural” junk food. Have some of that healthy sugar in the afternoon, too. Feed your sweet tooth with nutrient rich fruit. Why not have a pear, a slice of watermelon, or a peach? How about berries with lunch? So many options! Eliminate the sugar-filled desserts. Forego sweet drinks— soda, energy drinks, bottled fruit juices, pre-packaged smoothies, sweetened teas, etc.
Here is my humble yet hearty recommendation: go for the two- week challenge and completely cut processed sugar from your diet. If weight loss is at all a priority for you then this is an especially important thing to do (this will only be one benefit among many). And again, detox that pantry. Throw everything away that has processed sugar or “evaporated cane juice” or “corn syrup.” And while you’re at it, toss the stuff with artificial sweeteners, too. Please remember my fair warning: processed sugar (and Aspartame) is addictive! That means that giving it up won’t be easy. It’ll take some discipline, but hang in there. It will be among the best things you do for yourself.
After the two weeks, any urge you have for processed sugar will likely be gone, or at least substantially reduced. Life is simply better without it, for both the body and mind. Trust me. And following our protocol of replacing processed sweets with the goodness of sweets from fruit (have two to four pieces a day) will make the whole thing very doable. I promise you’ll be glad you did this for yourself!
In addition to simply eating healthier, you’ll discover something amazing. As with any healthy protocol, when you give your body what it truly wants and you begin to feel the benefits, you’ll notice that you’ll start to naturally gravitate towards those things that make you feel great. Don’t be surprised if you don’t find cake and ice cream as appealing as you used to. Once you’re on the healthy, energetic path, you’ll find it relatively easy to stay on it. Such is the brilliance of your body’s natural intelligence. Pretty sweet, eh?