Sugar and Spice – Confessions of a Sugar Addict

A big part of eating a healthy, delicious diet has been figuring out what to do about my “sweet tooth.”  I might as well face it, I love sweet stuff and I am always going to.  However, since the dentist has yet to pinpoint and extract the exact tooth responsible, I am going to have to figure out another plan!

smoothie and cupcake

The sweet life: Smoothie and cupcake

Confession time:  I used to consume a terrifying amount of sugar on a daily basis.  If you looked at how much food I ate overall you might have a hard time understanding why I had such a weight problem.  But if you looked at my sugar in-take it would all become clear.

I am convinced that Lustig is correct that a common feature of all successful diets is that they are low in sugar and high in fiber.  I say this both because I find his arguments persuasive but, more importantly, because I find the results of such a diet breathtakingly impressive. See the list of benefits I have experienced here.

Here’s the summary of my current understanding:  Sugar is a problem and needs to be greatly restricted if not eliminated.  Alternative sweeteners aren’t necessarily the answer and caution is needed until further research is done.

In The Skinny Rules, Bob Harper forbids all added sweeteners, including artificial ones (Rule 10).  His reasoning is that the sweet taste is so addictive that any added sweetener exposes us to the risk of relapse.  His goal is to break people of their desire for “hyper-sweetness.”  He might be right, but of all his rules, this is the one I break just a little.  However, I very much agree that we need to dramatically decrease the “sweet” component of our diets, and one of the reasons I think I have done this successfully is that I can no longer stomach any commercially sweetened beverage or food product.  Foods I used to consume in large amounts are now so sweet to me I simply can’t eat them.

But how can I live as a real, sweet-toothed human in a sugar-filled world?  If I’m honest I must admit that I have more “sweet” in my diet than either Bob Harper or Robert Lustig would think prudent.  They are probably right, and maybe I am in dangerous territory, but for what it’s worth here’s my strategy:

 1) No sweetened beverages, either sugar sweetened, or artificially sweetened.  This means soda, diet soda, fruit juice, energy drinks or sweetened iced tea. I am convinced by the arguments that a) there is no fiber in these drinks to buffer the sugar b) our brains seem unable to detect that we have taken in calories in liquid form and therefore don’t compensate by reducing overall consumption following the intake of a caloric beverage c) when our brains taste sweet they expect calories and if no calories are present this sets us up for problems with appetite regulation.  Also, I want to use my “sweet allowance” on more satisfying options, so sweetened beverages are an easy target for total abstinence.

2) Cane sugar: severely restricted.  My only source of cane sugar is my block or two of dark chocolate a day, and because I go for 70% or higher of cocoa, this works out to very little.

3) Coconut palm sugar:  It has some nutritional merit and I love the taste.  Although it is reported to have a low GI (35), I am skeptical as it is mostly sucrose.  I therefore treat it as a sugar and only use it occasionally in baking that contains a substantial amount of fiber.

4) Artificial sweeteners (Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin): No thanks – can’t stand the taste and not comfortable with the possibility that they may increase my risk of cancer.

5) Honey, maple syrup, dates, agave:  Again, some nutritional value but all high in sugar and if I use them at all it is in baking with a high fiber content.  They basically belong in the same category as coconut palm sugar.

6) Fruit:  A favorite source of sweetness in my diet, but I am very careful about preserving the fiber by eating the whole fruit.  Berries deserve special mention as an “added sweetener”:  They easily release some of their juice and can be used to sweeten food without damaging the fiber in the fruit (eg: over cereal or in plain yoghurt).  As an added advantage they are low GI and full of anti-oxidants.  Berries are therefore my most “guilt-free” and liberally used “sweetener.”

7) Berry smoothies.  Related to the above but they deserve special mention because they are a bit complicated  Let me begin by saying that my smoothies are so good they should be illegal.  However, smoothies are controversial among those concerned about sugar.  Some say they are fine, others say that the blades of the blender destroy the insoluble fiber in the fruit and they are therefore no different to fruit juice. They are also wary of smoothies as “liquid calories.”  Here’s how I approach it: a) my smoothies are very thick and I find them super filling.  I therefore don’t believe that they suffer from the same “liquid calorie” danger as juice and soda.  They are either barely drinkable or have to be eaten with a spoon. b) The fruit content of my smoothies are from berries, therefore low GI c) I add in additional fiber in the form of Chia seeds and coconut flour so I have both soluble and insoluble fiber covered d) I believe that the protein and fat from the whey, yoghurt and coconut milk also help to buffer the sugars from the fruit.  e) As an added precaution I first blend up the other ingredients (greek yoghurt, whey powder, coconut milk, chia seeds) and then gently muddle and fold in the berries so that some of their juice is released but the whole fruit is still in there without the fiber being obliterated by heavy processing.  Phew, all that effort for a smoothie!  I wonder if Lustig or Harper would give me permission to enjoy it under these conditions.  Maybe not, but I am taking my chances for the time being because they are such a delicious and easy way to get a nutritious breakfast on the run.

8) Whey powder: I use a sweet vanilla whey powder with no added sugar.  However, it is really delicious and sweetens whatever I add it to very effectively, and I can only conclude that the sweetness comes from the lactose, which has none of the dangers of fructose.  I started using whey for protein, and the sweetness came as an added bonus.

9) Lacuma or Maca powder:  Nutritious and tasty in smoothies or homemade chocolate or ice cream.  I use these for their health benefits, or as a variation on other sweeteners.

10) Xylitol:  I love using it because it tastes just like sugar and can be used with a 1:1 conversion in baking.  Having said that I always reduce the sweetener on a recipe just because I don’t like things too sweet anymore.  Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables and also made by the human body.  Dentists love it because it protects against tooth decay.  You have probably already encountered it in sugar-free gum. But is it ok to use as a sweetener?  The worst thing I have read about Xylitol is that it can cause stomach upsets if you overdo it.  This is because it is not fully broken down during digestion.  The funny thing is, if I buy commercial sweets with Xylitol, Maltitol or Sorbitol I get a violent stomach upset after eating just two or three.  However, if I use Xylitol in my own baking or cooking I have no ill effects whatsoever.  My theories are that either I am using it in sufficient moderation or there is something else that’s nasty about those sweets and causing the mischief.  Xylitol is slowly absorbed and metabolized and has a negligible effect on insulin.  I am not about to go out and eat it by the sack load, but I think it’s ok to use in cooking and baking as I am doing.  I am prepared to take my chances with this one for the time being.

Warning:  If you have dogs, don’t ever let them eat anything containing Xylitol as it is highly toxic to them!

11) Stevia: It has mixed reviews.  I have some in the house and use a little in my herbal teas if I want them slightly sweetened.  Because it is so intensely sweet a little goes a long way.

To sum up, here are my own “sweet” rules:

1) No sweetened beverages.

2) The body expects calories when it tastes sweetness, so give it some.  In other words use sweeteners in cooking or baking of real food, not as a way to “cut calories” .  This approach will actually help you consume fewer calories overall because you aren’t playing tricks with appetite regulation.

3) No artificial sweeteners or “diet” food products – highly processed and bad for you on so many levels, besides just tasting lousy.

4) Require any caloric sweetener to have some nutritional value, not just be empty calories.  However, don’t use their nutritional merit as a way of conveniently forgetting that they are still to be treated with caution, especially if they consist primarily of sucrose and/or fructose.

5) Eat any caloric sweetener with plenty of fiber to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate.

6) Diversify:  Don’t consume large quantities of any one sweetener, at least until further research is done into its safety.

7) If it’s sweet, make it yourself.  You can then ensure that you use the minimum sweetener and that you buffer it with fiber, protein and/or fat.

8) If you find that you are naturally choosing to eat less rather than more, you’re doing it right.  If you are just swapping one sweet addiction for another, you might need to reassess your approach.

This might seem like an overly complex strategy but it works for me.  I wish I could just go “cold turkey” and cut out the sweet stuff, and I have certainly tried.  It usually lasts for a while and then I regress back into my old ways.  This approach is sustainable, therefore better in my opinion.  I have been doing it for 6 months and I know I can do it forever.  It may work for you or it may not, so find your own way of navigating the sweet stuff in your life.  Whatever works to keep you eating “low sugar, high fiber” is an excellent start!

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What’s for Breakfast?

In my post, Top 10 Tips for Winning the Hunger Games, I wrote about the strategies that work for me in managing hunger.  This was a brief overview and probably too much for one post, so I thought I would write a series of posts going to each “tip” in greater detail.

Let’s start the series where I start my day, with breakfast!  If you identify with my description of “unnatural zombie hunger” and want to do something about it, just start eating breakfast if you do nothing else. Yes, your annoying mother was annoyingly right when she told you that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”  So if breakfast is the most important meal, I say it should also be the most delicious!  When you wake up in the morning, how awesome would it be if your first thought were not that you need to check email, rush to get ready for work, sort out the kids but “what’s for breakfast?”  Yum!

I can already hear the excuses: “I am not hungry in the morning.”  “I don’t have time.”  Yeah, yeah, I know you people, because I was you people 🙂  Let me give you a clue:  You are not hungry in the morning because you are hung over from your TV and snacking binge of the night before. What’s more, you can find time if you get organized and make a few minutes to throw something together before you rush off into your stressful day.  The bottom line is if you don’t eat breakfast, plan to stay fat, hungry and miserable!

I started my breakfast habit by drinking a meal replacement.  Not ideal but better than nothing and it allowed me to gradually transition to smoothies and then to a full main meal.  Start with whatever works for you and just have something every day and soon you will wonder how you ever got by without it!

My breakfasts include:

  1. Fruit: I choose berries for anti-oxidants and deliciousness!  I get a month’s supply from Hillcrest Berry Orchards.  They have a great variety and their quality is out of this world! I then divide the berries into 100 gram portions in Ziploc bags and keep them in the freezer.  I normally indulge in 200 grams of 2 or 3 kinds a day.  This special treat alone is enough to keep me showing up for breakfast every morning without fail!
  2. Protein:  My go-to choices are eggs, whey powder or Greek yoghurt.
  3. Healthy fat: Favorites are nuts or a bit of Coconut Oil.
  4. Fiber:  Chia seeds are the perfect choice because they keep you full for hours and can be eaten on their own or added to just about anything.
  5. Whole grain.  If I am having grain on any given day I make sure at least one of the portions is for breakfast.  My new discovery and current favorite is puffed amaranth, but also love whole oats.

Need an exotic breakfast idea?  Here’s one that includes all of the above that I keep coming back to:

flapjacks, berries and ice cream

Puffed Amaranth and Chia flapjacks with berries, nuts and homemade ice cream

I love this breakfast because besides being so decadent that it should be illegal, it allowed me to make creative use of the interesting ingredients I have been collecting from The Ethical Co-Op and local Farmers Markets.  I have Ashley of Edible Perspectives to thank for the fantastic amaranth recipe (she calls hers French Toast but mine came out more like flapjacks because I made the batter a bit wetter.)  Between the flapjack and ice cream layers are blue berries, black berries, raspberries, brazil nuts and pecan nuts. Sigh. . .

This would be a great time to introduce my new recipe page.  Swing by to get the ice cream recipe for this breakfast and see Edible Perspectives for the Amaranth French Toast recipe.  Hope you like it and that it  inspires you to begin your own Breakfast Adventure!

Top 10 Tips for Winning at the Hunger Games!

Let me make myself 100% clear:

I think it is unhelpful to tell hungry fat people to eat less.  However, I am absolutely convinced that the desired behavior is for them to eat less, and by “less ” I mean fewer calories, especially from refined and processed foods.  Although we can argue about all the factors that contribute to weight gain, an excessive intake of calories is clearly at least one of them.  Interestingly, in the process of eating fewer calories one may end up eating a greater volume of food and a lot more nutrients, and that is a good thing and just goes to show that just saying “eat less” without explaining what you mean by that and how to achieve it is pointless.

I do not defend overeating, but I do seek to understand it.  My quest for understanding begins with myself.  It has lead me to the conclusion that although the desired outcome is that I eat fewer calories, this is unachievable without first addressing the problem of hunger.

Here’s what I know:  If you are hungry and you have access to food, sooner or later you are going to eat.  What is more, the hungrier you are by the time you give in to the urge to eat, the more you are likely to overeat and the less healthy and rational your food choices will be.  That’s the bad news.  On the flip side, the good news is that if you eat in such a way that you are nourished and satisfied and your hunger is well managed then you will be able to eat more appropriate amounts relatively easily.  Of course while it is quite possible to overeat when you are NOT hungry purely because food is there and it tastes good, it is not inevitable and it becomes relevant to talk about things like will power, self control and common sense.  However, if you are hungry all of that goes out of the window and you can no more prevent yourself from overeating than you can hold your breath indefinitely.

So here are the top 10 things that work for me.  As I write this I am grateful that I can afford to eat in this way and embarrassed that I squandered this privilege by eating badly when there are people in the world that genuinely have nothing to eat or are unable to afford healthy food.  My experience of hunger and obesity is very much a problem of affluence, and fortunately the solution is also within my grasp because of my privileged economic position.  In future posts I will write about how much more complicated the problem becomes when poverty is factored into the equation.

1) Eat a hearty breakfast as soon after waking as possible.  I know your mother already told you this, but this one really is non-negotiable! According to the National Weight Control Registry 78% of people who maintain their weight loss in the long term eat breakfast every day.  There are many reasons for eating breakfast including: kick starting your metabolism for the day, maintaining energy and blood sugar levels etc.  The main reason for me is that it is at breakfast where the battle against hunger for the day is won or lost.  I was one of the “not hungry for breakfast” people who then started bingeing on refined carbs from midmorning until bedtime.  The thought of food first thing in the morning made me nauseous.   Now my stomach screams for breakfast like an angry baby until it is fed, and then my appetite gradually tapers off throughout the day until by evening I am done with food and ready to close the kitchen.  I have gone from eating my main meal at night, followed by incessant mindless snacking in front of the TV to not even particularly needing to eat an evening meal and being perfectly comfortable with a salad or an apple.  I did NOT do this by deciding to eat less at night.  I did it by eating more for breakfast!

2) Drink Water!  Especially: First thing when you wake up (with some lemon juice if you like) and half an hour before meals.  Then drink as much throughout the day as possible. By drinking more water I have stopped drinking other beverages including fruit juice and diet soda (do I even need to bother to mention regular soda?).  I don’t talk a lot about “cutting out” anything from my diet except when it comes to sugary or artificially sweetened drinks.  These simply have to go and a habit of water drinking is critical to success.

3) Eat at regular intervals throughout the day.  Don’t allow yourself to become hungry before you eat but don’t eat past the point of satiety either. End the meal when you feel comfortable, but not “stuffed.” Initially I found that three meals and two snacks worked well for me but now I struggle to manage more than two meals and one to two snacks.   My schedule is:  Breakfast first thing, mid morning snack, lunch, light supper.  I didn’t decide that I would eat fewer meals and snacks.  I ate more earlier in the day and ended up eating less by default because it’s all I can manage.

4) Include a lean protein, a small amount of healthy fat, and plenty of fiber with every meal.  Bulk out the meal as much as possible with non-starchy vegetables.  This combination works best because you get a sustained feeling of fullness, both from the quantity of food and the composition.  I measure proteins, fats and carbohydrates very carefully and throw caution to the wind when piling on the non starchy vegetables. I find that if I just eat a big plate of steamed vegetables I still get hungry, but if I include appropriate portions of protein and fat and occasionally some whole grains, I  am sated until my next meal.  I also make sure to include protein with every snack.

5) Limit your intake of grains and make sure they are really whole grains.  I say this because the more grains I eat the more I want to eat.  Basically they make me hungrier! They also push my blood sugar too high.  Now I know that there is a lot of talk about going gluten free or grain free these days, and if that works for you good and well.  I just don’t feel good on a completely grain free diet, both physically and in terms of satisfaction with my meals.  However, I do make sure that I buy my grains from good sources, and prepare them myself.  I have also tried to make sure I eat diverse grains and severely restrict my intake of wheat and corn.  Learning to cook with quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth has been fun and enjoyable.  I do not eat any grain-based food product from a supermarket or convenience store because I just don’t trust it and  I try to eat no more than 2 measured portions of whole grains a day.

6) Smoothies, Soups and Salads are your best friends and can form the basis of your meal plan.  I love all three because they are satisfying, bulky and an easy way to introduce major nutritional variety.  If I am short of ideas on what to eat I will have a smoothie for breakfast, soup for lunch and a salad for supper.

7) While you are still trying to control hunger, there are some great low cal or no cal options to create a feeling of fullness in-between meals and snacks.  My favorites are: Green Tea – the warmth relaxes my stomach and takes away the stab-you-in-the-gut-and-laugh hunger pang! Soaked Chia seeds – full of Omega 3, soluble fiber and other goodies and great for filling up a belly for relatively few calories. Non-starchy vegetables for an eat as much as you like buffet!

8) Don’t cut out food from your diet, crowd it out! Once you have a good understanding of what you should be eating on a daily basis, the foods you shouldn’t be eating almost become a non-issue. Don’t obsess about what you will be missing out on, and rather think about all the delicious food you are going to stock up on and enjoy from day to day. Make sure there is no room in your budget, your trolley, your kitchen cupboards and, above all, your tummy for the wrong types of food! If you eat something on a regular basis, make it earn its place in your diet. Research its nutritional profile, understand what it does to your hormones, and make sure its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. If a food is not worthy of a regular place in your diet, don’t have it in your home. Make sure home is a “safe eating” zone. This ensures that foods that should only be eaten as occasional treats are not easily accessible and tempting. We all face enough temptations as we live in the real world and we certainly don’t need them in our own kitchens!

Before starting with this approach my relationship with food was troubled to say the least. I didn’t like to think about food. I never cooked, and seldom did grocery shopping. I could never tell you in advance what I was going to eat for my next meal, and when you asked me what I felt like eating I would struggle to tell you, although it definitely wasn’t “vegetables!”  I lived from meal to meal – ate at a restaurant, got take out and if I did prepare something it was usually a sandwich.  Worst of all, although I craved it constantly, I didn’t actually enjoy my food, even the so-called delicious junk food. Now I know exactly what I am going to eat, grocery shopping is done decisively and with military precision and I really look forward to every meal!

9) Every meal should be utterly delicious and fill you with pleasure and delight. I am finally beginning to figure it out – in addition to managing hunger and eliminating cravings, it is really important to me to love the food I eat! People who struggle with weight often develop a lot of emotional issues round food that involve shame, guilt and obsessive compulsive behaviors and erroneously conclude that they are “bad” for liking food so much and that they need to suppress their appetites and put food as far out of their mind as possible. Extreme dieting can just be another part of this dysfunctional dynamic. Sooner or later your body will rebel and force you do perform the basic functions you need to stay alive, be it breathing or eating. Learning that it is healthy and normal to openly love food and derive pleasure from enjoying it is a big part of adopting a sustainable, healthy eating plan. There are so many healthy foods that deserve a place in our diets, so if you aren’t enjoying your bill of fare, keep trying out different foods and experimenting. See “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” by Jonny Bowden for ideas.

10) Prepare your own food! The first thing I learned in the Hunger Games was that when it comes to feeding myself, I am the only person I can trust!  Until further notice everyone with an economic interest in my food supply is guilty until proven innocent.  I have also discovered that the manufactures of processed foods are horrible chefs!  They actually don’t know how to prepare food at all, they just know how to manipulate combinations of sugar, salt and fat to promote addictive eating behaviors.  They literally have this down to a science, but I bet if you gave them a basket of fruit and vegetables and told them to turn it into a meal a kid would eat they would be at a complete loss.  This is why the “healthy version” of any processed food tastes like cardboard – because you have restricted the only ingredients the processed food industry understands.  The flavors in processed and fast foods are simple, overpowering and boring.  Once you learn to enjoy complex, subtly flavored, balanced and artistically prepared dishes, the fast food alternatives quickly become disappointing at best and unpalatable at worst. Unfortunately many restaurants are not much better.  If you do eat out, go to a good restaurant with a great chef who is an artist with fresh local produce and understands portion control. You will have a more enjoyable meal and it won’t do your waistline any damage.

So there you have it.  This has turned out to me a much longer post than I intended.  In my defense, everything I have written has been enormously helpful to me and I hope that at least some of it will be to you too!