What does sugar mean to you? Comfort? Quick Energy? Celebration? Reward?
Sweets are so pervasive in our culture that many people have become completely accustomed to, even reliant upon, the roller coaster of fluctuating blood sugar. As food was increasingly industrialized over the last century, clever manufacturers added more and more sugar to everyday items, covering up the true taste and nutrients lost to increased processing. Many shoppers realize that artificial additives designed to imitate food in aroma, mouthfeel, and so on, are actually dangerous chemicals. …But what of sugar? It is a naturally-occurring substance… what could be so wrong with the basis of birthday cakes and classic, bubbly soda-pop?
Unfortunately, the sweetest of treats present plenty of problems. Rising sugar consumption is implicated in all manner of disease, from diabetes to mood fluctuations, wrinkles, anxiety, menstrual concerns, and weight gain. Even theories that saturated fat and whole, nourishing animal products are linked to the prevalence of heart disease are being re-thought as we learn more and more of the devastating effects of sugar on body chemistry. Please note! Links we share are well-checked for educational purposes, but should not constitute a complete statement about any topic herein, nor should they be taken as health advice.
When facing a choice with a potentially destructive outcome, informed folks will normally choose otherwise. Here is where the insidious nature of sugar reveals itself. As sugar is one of the most crucial components of our makeup, as well as an opiate-like drug we are programmed to rely upon from birth, the choice to avoid sugar is a challenge to the homeostasis of body, mind, even spirit. Making a decision to nourish oneself is one of the most rewarding things a person can do! The good news is, we can all make that choice one meal at a time.
Harvest Market staff Kim Lemberg and Cosmia Weinerth, both Health Coaches certified by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, recently presented a Sugar Blues talk here in the store. The following recaps the discussion. Do you have a sugar success story? We would love to share it with other customers. Leave a comment below or email HarvestMarket7417@gmail.com with your tips and tricks.
Sucrose, fructose, and glucose belong to the same family. Sugarcane, beets, and corn all feature massive doses of some combination of these sugars. Digesting these sugars draw from our store of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and so on. Average sugar consumption now exceeds 150 pounds per person, per year. No wonder obesity and mineral deficiency are on the rise.
One common question is, “what about natural sweeteners?” Many of us know that artificial sweeteners are neurotoxic and make it more difficult for our taste buds to re-acclimate to a natural diet. Natural sweeteners are at least recognized by the body as food, but they are still concentrated sugar. Raw honey and maple syrup provide minerals and vitamins in pure form. Using honey and maple syrup sparingly provide nutrient bang for your sugar buck. (Maple syrup is Bob’s sweetener of choice.) Stevia is a sweet-tasting leaf that can be plucked right from the plant and chewed or brewed into tea, like mint. The jury is out on whether tasting sweetness encourages the body to produce insulin, as so many digestive processes are activated by the glands of taste. The trouble with stevia is that most brands are highly refined and many contain additives like maltodextrin, frequently a corn derivative that (unless it is organic) is also likely Genetically Engineered. Raw stevia is available; it looks like cut and sifted plant material rather than white powder. (To the editor’s chagrin, there is now a product on the market called “Stevia in the Raw” from the makers of popular “Sugar in the Raw.” Initial excitement over this packet turned to disappointment when the ingredients revealed processed stevia and added maltodextrin.)
Agave nectar is another popular natural sweetener. Research suggests that agave has a lower glycemic index than other sweeteners, but there is controversy surrounding this topic. Agave is far from the nectar squeezed straight from the succulent leaf, though- the syrup comes from processing the starchy root ball of the agave plant. Coconut nectar and crystals fall into this plant-based category, as well. Some of these plant-based sweeteners, although processed, still offer intact nutrients along the lines of honey and maple syrup. Take every claim of miracle sweetener in a bottle with a grain of salt.
Sweet tooth aside, the human body needs carbohydrates. Most shoppers understand the difference between simple and complex carbs. The grey area exists where what Kim calls “fake complex” carbs are concerned. Whole wheat breads and the like are still much more processed than truly whole grains, which are usually purchased dried in their original state, soaked for digestibility, and cooked as gently as possible to preserve nutrients. Refined products made from whole grains are a healthier choice than those made from white flour. It is still wise to move toward truly whole grains as often as possible. (Join us in September to learn more about grains and grain-free lifestyles.) The more “whole” the grains in flour products, the more fiber present, the slower the sugars are absorbed into the blood, lowering the risk of blood sugar spikes.
Sprouted grain products offer a healthier alternative to refined whole grains. Sprouting renders nutrients into more assimilable forms. Sprouting performs the soaking function of letting the grains know it is time to release nutrients, as Nature would through moisture and warmth, as well as breaking down the plant material for easier digestion. Although sprouting may not significantly alter the glycemic index of a grain, it does make the beneficial nutrients more bioavailable. Sprouted breads, cereals, and baking mixes are available, including many soy-free varieties.
Other complex carbohydrates that can help to meet our need include green vegetables, fruit, brown rice, sweet potatoes and squashes, and beans and legumes.
Fresh fruit provides more than adequate natural sugar. Concentrated fruit juice, or fructose, poses a real threat to blood sugar balance. Without the inherent fiber in whole fruit, fructose is metabolized by the liver just like alcohol. Fruit-juice sweetened products may offer marginally more nutrition than those sweetened with sugarcane, although sugarcane has a more healthful balance of glucose to fructose. Fruit juices should be considered a concentrated sweetener like anything else.
The danger in blood sugar spikes lies in the alarming insulin response that follows. Flooding the blood with quick-burning sugar is considered by the body to be a state of severe imbalance. Insulin is released to combat the overload, carrying excess sugar to the liver, where it is converted to fat and stored for later caloric needs. The role of the liver in sugar and fat metabolism cannot be understated and is beyond the scope of this article. Put simply, insulin overload short-circuits the fat-burning hormones we naturally produce to manage blood sugar and fat storage. Our bodies do the job of metabolism so well when fed naturally-occurring amounts of carbohydrates. These systems are not designed to accommodate the amount of sugar in modern foods, so the body’s inherent checks and balances create a roller coaster-state that can be very difficult to eradicate.
What happens when the roller coaster runs out of steam? We crash. The craving for more quick fuel rears its head, and the whole process begins anew. Long-term sugar addicts may not even experience a rise in energy anymore, but skip straight to deeper exhaustion. This is an indication that the adrenal glands have reached capacity and need to be nurtured back to health.
Consuming sugar is our way of solving a problem. What we really crave is energy.
Energy comes from a variety of sources in each life. Consider what Kim calls “Primary Food:”
“Primary foods feed us, but don’t come on a plate. Elements such as meaningful spiritual engagement or practice, an inspiring career, regular and enjoyable physical activity, and honest, open relationships that feed your soul and your hunger for living, all constitute primary food.” When primary nourishment is lacking, food fills the gaps.
Yin/Yang balance is helpful in understanding cravings. In essence, Yin represents the expansive and weightless, while Yang represents contraction and depth. Set aside any hokey-pokey bias and consider the energetic nature of food: Yin substances include alcohol, caffeine, sugar, milk, and white flour, things that disembody the mind or spirit. Dark, cool, moist; Yin helps us open up, relax, unwind. Yang substances include salt, eggs, red meat, strong spices, and hard cheeses. Ideal foods strike a balance between these two extremes: nuts, legumes, leafy vegetables, true whole grains, root vegetables, beans, fish. Consuming foods too frequently in one extreme or the other creates counter-cravings for the opposite extreme. Famous pairings include Yin and Yang substances together: steak and wine, spaghetti and meatballs, ice cream and salty pretzels. Even types of exercise show Yin or Yang qualities, such as yoga vs. power lifting. Yin represents deprivation; Yang, overindulgence.
The constitution of an individual has a starting place on the Yin/Yang spectrum, much like the Ayurvedic Dosha. Someone whose body type leans more to one extreme or the other will benefit from eating toward the other end of that spectrum.
We know now that cravings mean, “I need something.” Considering our primary food sources and current state of Yin/Yang balance can help when choosing foods or activities that will bring us back into balance and reduce cravings.
No surprise that this age-old wisdom applies: Breakfast matters!
Many people find that after years of relying on starch to feel full, fats and protein step up to nourish us more thoroughly. Years of low-fat living can result in serious nutrient deficits. Low-fat foods are often full of sugar to compensate for taste. The spectrum of healthful to dangerous fats is so wide that to categorize all fats as problematic is short-sighted, although convenient to the industrial food complex. This topic is covered in resourceful detail here [LINK]. By noticing cravings, each person can decide what amount of fat and protein best suits his or her particular constitution and nutrition needs. Suffice it to say that quality fat is not the enemy, and that fat-free eating has not solved the modern health crisis. Healthy fats speed metabolism, give energy, encourage Vitamin absorption, and support the brain and skin. One caution for vegetarians: plant-based fats are generally high in Omega-6 fatty acid, and oils are often highly processed. It is wise to be mindful of the Omega-6/Omega-3 balance and extraction method when choosing fats and cooking oils.
Over time, obtaining carbohydrates from vegetables, legumes, and truly whole grains leaves us feeling full instead of empty. Learning to build meals from a variety of nourishing ingredients is simple and well worth the effort of withdrawal.
When a craving arises, ask, “What is appealing about that food?” Is it creamy, crunchy, salty, sweet, cold, or warm? Can those characteristics be found in other, healthier foods? Is it a strong flavor you crave? There are plenty of beneficial spices to excite the sense of taste. Sweet taste can come from a variety of sources. Even cacao offers satisfaction for a chocolate craving without added sugar. (Chocolate, by the way, is one of the foods highest in magnesium- a craving for chocolate can indicate common magnesium deficiency.) Cravings at nighttime usually have a primary-food connection- what is still hungry at the end of the day? It can be helpful to ask, “What do I really want or need?” Stress and boredom are often behind sweets cravings. So is dehydration. Drink two glasses of water first thing. Do something new! Little changes can turn momentum around over time. Kim and Cosmia suggested creating a “Nourishment Menu,” a list of foods and activities that build energy and fulfillment, rather than drain and exhaust. Beneath any change is a commitment to self. Reducing or eliminating sugar may be one of the greatest gifts a body can receive.
Want Cookies? Eat These…
Plain oatmeal with cinnamon and bee pollen
Cultured vegetables: carrots, beets, radishes
Carrots or bell peppers with hummus
Avocado sprinkled with sea salt and a spoon of salsa
Vegetable juice: at least 80% green vegetables to 20% fruit, if you use fruit
Cultured vegetable kvass
Plain yogurt with whole fruit and/or spices
Unsweetened nut butter
Sprouted toast with ghee
Hot tea: hundreds of tasty flavors to choose from
Baked squash or sweet potato with butter, ghee, or sour cream
Hearty soup: check the ingredients for added sugar
Wild Alaskan salmon
Roast turkey and cheese roll-up with fresh greens
Chia seeds in water with mashed, whole fruit
Organic popped corn in coconut oil with sea salt and nutritional yeast
Unsweetened protein shake
Bee pollen: 1 tsp
What soothes your cravings healthfully?