Are you afraid of bananas? I don’t mean literally, of course—but do you avoid higher-sugar fruits because you think they’re “bad” for you? This is something I want to discuss today.
Sugar is tricky. And in general, we should keep our sugar intake low. Like most things that affect our health, though, it’s more complicated than that. Some health advocates aren’t acknowledging this, and are pushing a more black-and-white approach. I think telling the whole, detailed story is more helpful.
In this blog, I’ll cover my personal sugar story, the nuances of various types of sugar and how to reduce sugar in recipes. I’ll also outline what I believe is a healthy—physically, mentally and emotionally—approach to sugar. At the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing and it really comes down to what works for you.
My sugar story
Way back in the day, I used to joke that I had a threesome every night with two guys named Ben and Jerry. In other words, ice cream (and all forms of sugar for that matter) were seriously seductive and addictive to me. I struggled through this rollercoaster relationship for years. Let me paint the painful picture for you: Most nights, I’d open up a fresh pint of ice cream and promise myself I’d have just a bite or two (hello, amnesia!). But then I’d quickly realize that I couldn’t put the spoon down. How did I stop? I’d use my dessert as my ash tray… Except that wasn’t enough—I’d just dig out the cigarette butt and ashes and keep going. Next (desperate) step? I’d spray it all down with cleaning supplies. That would finally stop me. Talk about dysfunction.
I tell you this to illustrate that I fully understand the power sugar can have over us. And as a nation, our sugar consumption has gotten completely out of control. Thankfully I have a new, healthier relationship with sugar now (and I kicked cigarettes to the curb a long time ago, too). I’ll nibble on some fruit or vegan dark chocolate when I want something sweet these days. Sugar isn’t the boss. I am. By changing my diet, resetting my tastebuds and dealing with the emotional stuff (important!), I was able to put sugar in its place. I’d say what helped me ditch the sweet stuff the most, though, was educating myself on all things sugar.
Not all sugar is created equal
One response to the sugar epidemic is to deem all sugars off-limits, but there’s a big difference between natural sugars and added sugars. The reason that government agencies and health experts make a point of discouraging “added sugars” is because these types of sugars are heavily processed and devoid of any natural nutrients. They bring our blood sugar up without supplying our bodies with anything healthful: a lose-lose situation.
Naturally occurring sugars, on the other hand—I’m talking about the sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables—deliver sweetness while also providing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and concentrated stores of powerhouse phytonutrients. The sugars in fruit (or sweeter vegetables, like carrots, beets and sweet potatoes) also come packaged with fiber, which helps us feel full and slows the absorption of sugar into our bloodstream. Plus, the micronutrients in fresh fruit may prevent the uptake of sugar in our small intestine. This means that many of us can enjoy the delightful sweetness and health benefits of fresh fruit without experiencing the drawbacks of mood-busting highs and lows and blood sugar spikes.
Not surprisingly, evidence shows that populations who eat more fruit have a lower BMI and lower risk of developing many chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, type II diabetes, digestive diseases and obesity.
A sane approach to sugar
A healthy relationship with sugar is different for everyone. If you have special reason to be vigilant about the amount of sugar in your diet—for example, if you’re a cancer patient, or have diabetes or candida—then you may want to exercise some mindfulness even with naturally occurring sugars. For you, it may be wise to seek out fruits that are lower in sugar, and to use only moderate amounts of fruit and sweet veggies in your green drinks and meals. Avoiding refined and processed sugary treats as much as possible is a no-brainer when facing these challenges.
For those who need to swear off the sweet stuff, don’t despair. It’s possible to create tons of flavor and character in recipes without relying exclusively on sweet ingredients. One of my favorite tricks for brightening the taste of my juices and smoothies is to use fresh herbs, lemon, lime and ginger. Just because your juice or smoothie isn’t sweet, doesn’t mean it should be blah.
But for many people, I advocate finding some middle ground in the sugar struggle. A dogmatic approach of total avoidance—including naturally occurring sugars in produce—can lead to rebellion and bingeing (see: Ben & Jerry’s story). Not to mention all the missed out benefits that come from something as remarkable as a blueberry. Keeping sugar in check should not be about vilifying it or fearing it. It should be about making peace with it, living comfortably with it and understanding how much sugar feels good to each of us as individuals. The aforementioned banana could be a no-no for some, but could be hugely healthful for others. It’s up to each of us to determine how much sugar is right for our bodies and lifestyles.