Feb. 26, 2015

How sweet it is....or is it?

Sugar! That seemingly innocent, sweet gift from the “Gods” that sucks us in as little children and continues to make up behave like children as adult; giggling over a tray of beautifully decorated cupcakes and shamelessly licking sauce from our fingers. Oh sugar, why do you have to be such a bad, bad player?! Sugar surrounds us in all its various forms. When I say sugar, what I really mean is carbohydrates that are broken down in the body to convert to glucose and then processed again to become energy or stored as future energy (aka FAT!). The whole process in mind numbingly complicated and it is no wonder the average person could find it impossible to understand in full.

There are many buzzwords in the media surrounding sugar such as, insulin resistance, glycemic index, and unrefined sugars. The problem is that many of these topics only give a part of the equation.  Take agave for example. Apparently agave is lower on the glycemic index scale (how quickly your body converts a carbohydrate to glucose and how high it takes your blood sugar level)(1) than many other sweeteners. However, agave breaks down to a higher level of fructose in the system. Fructose is only converted to stored energy by your liver so in addition to adding to your fat supply, it is being found to increase triglycerides (2).  Hmmmmmm ….so much for that “healthier” option.  

This dilemma goes on and on with many of the sweetener options. Knowing the details of every sweetener option out there is currently beyond my knowledge base. That does not mean that I just give up though. It is up to me to read and research every new thing I try. The reality is that carbohydrates are a big part of the human diet. The problem is not so much with the occasional sugar load to your system. It is more about the daily pounding your body takes when you consume large amounts of carbohydrates that your body has to manage. Glucose in the blood stream is only a good thing within certain parameters. The glucose molecule is large and somewhat caustic to body tissues. This is why diabetics have to keep such a close eye on their blood sugar levels because long- term high levels is harmful to tissues and organs.

 Clearly, we ingest and digest many forms of carbohydrates. Finding a carbohydrate is as easy as falling off a log. This is, one of the many reasons that I attempt to stay away from as many packaged products as possible. Think of many packaged foods as partially pre-digested. The refining of grains strips away the protective fibers that slow the rapid conversion of carb to glucose. The flavors are “pumped up” by adding a variety of sweeteners, which cause our bodies to work overtime to handle the load of glucose and fructose now flooding the system. Then there is the whole spiral effect of “high” followed by the “low” followed by the craving to get more, more, more.

We want more….. I believe it is a brain craving more than a body craving. It is a social craving, a memory craving, and comfort craving. Our body can get its entire carbohydrate need fulfilled without ever adding a single man made sweetener. This is my opinion only and I have no scientific evidence to support it, but it is just common sense. Such an abundance of sweetener in almost everything we eat has only come about in recent times. In addition, our tastes and brains have happily accommodated the mother-load of all things sweet. So what can we do?

It is not realistic to believe that most of us can just turn off our “sweet switch” and abstain from all that is sweetness. After all, so much of our social life revolves around food related events and traditions that involve sweet treats. This is how I approach it.

  1. Treat is the optimal word. When my Honey brought me a beautiful Valentine box, I did not run in horror and scream, “How could you? SUGAR!!!! arggggg”.  It was a treat (and a gift) to savor, a little at a time. Just make sure you are not “treating” yourself every day.

  2. Keep it as natural as possible. Fruit is naturally sweet so why not let the natural sweetness of whole, natural ingredients do the job of sweetening dishes. Some good examples are dates, grapes, raisins, oranges, coconut, etc.

  3. Retrain your sweet tooth. I have to admit to you right now that this may be easier for me than others. By nature, I do not have a big sweet tooth. For what every reason, I have never been a big sweet craver. I did have to overcome some long established habits. When I was growing up, we often had hot cereals like oatmeal or if we did have cold cereals, they typically were not pre-sweetened. My parents allowed us to doctor up out cereals with a spoonful of white or brown sugar. It became habit. As I stopped using sugar products, I had to get used to the way things really tasted rather than the altered version that I was accustomed. If you cannot go cold turkey, then back off a little at a time. You may find that eventually you have reset your tastes to a new norm.

  4. Re-think what is “normal”. If you are a well-established jarred sauce user, then your understanding of sauces like spaghetti sauce is a pretty sweet version. You may not even realize how sweet it is unless you taste it side by side with a traditional home- made version. Catsup is another big example. These store bought products rely on tons of sweetener for their flavor. I cannot recommend buying sugar free either because I personally am very suspicious of most of the no calorie sweeteners. My one exception is Stevia. My answer to these pre-packaged products is to make your own. Even if you put in sugar, YOU control the amount. Start with less than recommended in the recipe and go from there.  Rely on other flavors to be in front, such as herbs, acids, and umami flavors like those in mushrooms.

  5. Explore new condiments or swap the bad for “a little better”. Example - Ditch the pancake syrup bottle shaped like a lady and top your pancakes with applesauce.  If you must have syrup then swap the artificial syrup like product for actual maple syrup. It is far more costly but if you parse it out in small amounts you can make it last (in the fridge please) and you can enjoy the real flavor of maple syrup.

  6. Save the dessert habit for the occasional treat rather than a daily ritual. Don’t forget all the other meals where, what you are eating may not be called dessert, but really….! If you must have a muffin for breakfast, fine. Just pass on the cupcake for dessert.  Donuts?? Don’t even get me started!

How to deal with the dilemma of sugars in our diets is by no means a simple subject. In a way, it is kind of crazy that we have to work so hard to figure out just what we are putting in our bodies every day. It is a worthwhile pursuit however. The signs are pointing more and more, that the sugars in our diets that may be at the root of so many health problems. I will continue to research products and share my findings.  I would also love to hear your tips for enjoying your sweet treats without compromising your health.

(1) http://www.sugar-and-sweetener-guide.com/glycemic-index-for-sweeteners.html

(2) http://blog.doctoroz.com/dr-oz-blog/agave-why-we-were-wrong

By Valerie Harris, Paramedic