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!
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:
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!