Sugar, the thing we are now told we should avoid. Oh, I get what you’re thinking, how do you do that? And how can something that tastes so good be so bad for you? How do you give it up for a day vs a whole life? Giving up sugar doesn’t mean giving up everything that tastes sweet. There are other things that taste sweet, right? And ways to make desserts without refined sugars and processed sugars.
Americans today consume the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) alone; that works out to be about 10% of our daily calories. This does not include ALL sugar consumed. Americans eat 19.5 teaspoons of sugar per day. (Keep in mind, the US calls “moderation” 6-12 teaspoons per day). I don’t eat that much sugar a day. Do you know what that means? Someone is eating my sugar everyday and getting more than 20 teaspoons per day.
Let’s start with a few sugar facts:
- Sugar is an empty calorie and contains no nutrients that your body needs
- It is an anti nutrient which means in addition to having no essential nutrients to your body, sugar actually can block the absorption of essential nutrients to your body
- The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day and adolescents consume an average of 32 teaspoons
In 1900 the US consumed about 5 pounds of sugar per person and in 2000 the US consumed about 150 pounds of sugar per person
- Sugar is addictive and activates the brains reward system like an opiate like substance
- Sugar robs the body of B vitamins which are essential for energy, hormones, digestion, brain health and cell health.
- Sugar decreases the immune system
- Sugar leads to premature aging
- Too much sugar increases your blood sugar and causes insulin resistance which can in time lead to diabetes
- Sugar is highly addictive by releasing dopamine when you eat it
- Eating sugar encourages more sugar cravings
- Eating sugar increases your appetite
- Sugar is highly inflammatory to the whole body
- Sugar feeds cancer
- Sugar can increase cholesterol and your triglycerides
- Sugar can contribute to obesity
- Sugar can be a cause of headaches
The Avoid for good:
- Anything Labeled Malt
- Barley Malt
- Beet Sugar (most likely GMO)
- Brown sugar
- Corn syrup
- Evaporated Cane Sugar/ Juice
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Powdered Sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice syrup
- White sugar
- Aminosweet (new name for a different version of aspartame)
- Neotame (new name for a different version of aspartame)
- Splenda (or also known and labeled as sucralose)
- Sweet N Low
Where you will find added sugar and artificial sweeteners?
- Soft Drinks (pop)
- Iced Tea
- Frozen Desserts: ice cream, frozen yogurt, popsicle
- Gum and Mints
- Pastries: scones, muffins, breads
- Condiments: Mustard, Ketchup, BBQ sauce, Pickles, Mayonaise
- Salad Dressings: also look out for bad fats
- Pasta Sauce and marinara sauce: most of them have added sugar
- Candy and sugar-free candy
- Tabletop sweeteners
- Almost every product labeled “sugar-free” (Unless sweetened with stevia or a healthy xylitol)
How to read a label for hidden sugar?
How to read a sugar label and what to look for (in addition to the things listed above):
- Cane Sugar
- Carob Sugar
- Corn Sweetener (or Corn Syrup or High Fructose Corn Syrup)
- Crystalline Fructose
- Malt Powder (also contains gluten)
- Organic Raw Sugar
- Rurbinado sugar
For the most part when manufacturers add sugar to products it’s either not needed or added in very high amounts. Things where sugar is not needed to be added: peanut butter, tomato sauce, pasta sauce, mayonnaise, yogurt, nuts/ seed mixtures. It’s just not needed and with a little label reading you will be able to find no sugar added products.
One word about reading labels for sugar. When reading labels for dairy products and tomato based products. You don’t want to look at the grams of sugar in the product because dairy and tomatoes naturally contain sugar. Lactose from dairy and fructose in the tomatoes. What you read the label look at the ingredients for added sugar, not foods that contain a sugar/ sweetener naturally.
REPLACE: Stevia and Raw Honey
What do you replace the refined sugar with?
My favorite type of sweetener is stevia. It is a herb that is naturally sweet. It is a natural product that has no effect on your blood sugar and is something I use in many of my recipes and to sweeten lemonade and hot drinks like coffee and tea. There are many different kinds of stevia. One of the main criticisms of stevia is that it has a bitter taste. In my opinion it is more of the way the stevia is manufactured than the actual stevia leaf itself.
There are many kinds of stevia you can purchase: liquid or powdered. There is something called green stevia that is the most unprocessed of all the stevias and can be purchased in both liquid and powder. My personal favorite powder is by the company Stevita. It is cold water extracted and comes from the whole part of stevia leaf. It is also mixed with a vegetable fiber. My favorite liquid stevia is by a brand called Sweet Leaf. They have many different flavors. My favorite for coffee is vanilla cream, hazelnut and English toffee. To flavor homemade lemonade, water, sparkling water, kombucha and water kefir.
One thing that you need to be careful of is that not all stevia is created equally. Some mass produced stevia is extracted through chemical processes. One of the popular brands out there is extracted with 40 chemical processes. It is also mixed with dextrose, which is a corn based sugar (right, isn’t this supposed to be sugar free) and the corn it is derived from is GMO. It is anything but a health food. Choosing a high quality stevia is very important. Stevia can be a game changer in your drinks, cooking and baking
This is my second favorite sweetener. It is also natural and is best in the raw form. Did you know that a lot of the honey that you purchase from the conventional store shelf is highly processed and loses a lot of the healing properties of honey and can be mixed with things that make it much less than honey.
Honey is still a sweetener. It is unrefined, natural and tastes amazing, but it is still a sweetener that will raise insulin levels and should still be used in smaller amounts. I love to use honey where I can’t use stevia or mix in recipes with stevia. By mixing it with stevia you are able to cut down on the amount of honey used in a recipe by still maintaining the level of sweetness. Stevia is a great sweetener in a drink and it sweeter than honey (and preferred by most too).
Honey changes and improves the texture of baked goods. I use it in small amounts. I see many recipes with 1/2-1 cup of honey as the sweetener. I believe that it too much and will cause an increase in inflammation in the body. It’s just too much to handle. By mixing the honey with stevia in baking recipes you can keep the sweetness, maintain a good texture and taste in recipes and still cut down on the effect of blood sugar, insulin and inflammation. With honey I recommend using no more than 1/3 of a cup of honey in a baking recipe. The ideal amount is 2 Tablespoons to 1/4 cup of honey in a recipe.
How do you replace too much honey in an already great grain free recipe? I’ve done this so many times. I find a great recipe that is grain free and amazing but there’s 3/4 of a cup of sugar in the recipe. What do you do? I have put a
1 cup honey= 1/3 cup honey + 2 teaspoon stevia
3/4 cup honey= 1/4 cup honey and 1 1/2 teaspoon stevia
1/2 cup honey= 3 Tablespoon and 1 teaspoon stevia
1/4 cup honey= 2 Tablespoon honey + 1 teaspoon stevia or no honey and 2 1/2 teaspoon of stevia
Other Natural Sweeteners
The other natural sweeteners that I like but use in more moderation is Maple syrup, xylitol (made from birch, not corn), coconut sugar, molasses, fruit juice, Luo Han Guo (rare now but is a new up and coming sweetener to look out for).
If you are out and about and looking at remade bars or grain-free options, you can purchase something sweetened with erythritol or malitol which is a sugar alcohol similar to xylitol. This is ok to eat especially if you are tring to find a quick snack or are traveling.
How do you navigate the natural sugar options? There are so many options and how do you make a wise choice when you can get overwhelmed with label reading.
Here’s my guide: 90% of the time make and eat things that only contain stevia and honey. It’s what I bake with at home and what I purchase in the store if at all possible. The other 10% is where other unrefined sweeteners come into play.
I use maple syrup most of the time for when I eat my grain free pancakes and waffles. You can use some in a baking recipe but I keep maple syrup use low because it is a more concentrated natural sweetener.
In some recipes I recommend xylitol and can be used in small amounts very well in baked goods. When you are purchasing xylitol make sure that it is made from birch vs corn. This is very important. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, and although it is natural it can cause some bloating and digestive upset when used in high quantities. When using xylitol make sure that you don’t use more than 1/3 up in a receipe and don’t use it raw. Raw xylitol (like in a frosting) increases the digestive upset. There’s no reason that you have to use xylitol in your cooking. You can always add more stevia or raw honey in the recipe to replace the xylitol.
* A caution with xylitol. It is very toxic to dogs. They can not break it down and can cause extreme sickness or even death. If your dogs have the a tendency to eat food off the counter I would not cook with xylitol. (Get Xylitol Here)
When a little sugar is OK in a food
There is a time where some cane sugar is ok. There are some foods that you may purchase that can contain a very small amount of added sugar.
- Dark Chocolate is a food that often times have some sugar that would be ok to eat on occasion (because you can’t get around it). Dark chocolate still contains some sugar and this is, in my book is a great treat. I recommend purchasing and eating chocolate that is at least 70% chocolate and higher. Preferably 80% and higher. The higher the cocoa content the less amount of sugar that is present in the chocolate. Even though the chocolate bar may be labeled as 70% or higher you still need to look at the ingredients and the sugar content of the bar. Sometimes the chocolate bars are mixed with a caramel or other filling and contain a very high amount of sugar. Ingredient label reading is always a good thing.
- Kombucha is another food (drink) that can have a little added sugar. This is where label reading comes into play. Some kombucha is sweetened with fruit juice (strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, etc) and those are ok to drink. I always choose the lower sugar fruits and avoid the guava and mango for the higher sugar content. Read the label for added sugar because some kombucha brands will add sugar to their finished product and it will have about 20g vs 4g of sugar in the drink.
How to eliminate refined sugar: slowly but surely or cold turkey?
This is honestly a personal preference and there’s no right or wrong way to cut out sugar. You have to start with looking at your health goals and looking closer at your health status right now. If your goal is to cut out refined sugars you’re going to need a plan.
Slowly, but surely
Going slowly but surely can be an effective tool for getting out sugar. This can be effective as you are learning how to read labels, what sugar contains, recipes without sugar and how to replace refined sugars with unrefined sugars in recipes (and finding new recipes all together). You can learn and phase out at the same time while starting the process of retraining your taste buds. Sometimes the slow process of removing sugar isn’t enough to retrain your taste buds and you can still crave sugar. If you aren’t noticing a decrease in your sugar cravings as you decrease the amount of sugar you are eating you may want to go cold turkey off of processed sugars. Give yourself a timeline of cutting out sugar and stick to your plan.
Going cold turkey and cutting out refined sugars
This is sometimes the way you have to go. As much as a quick change doesn’t always work, going sugar free is often times necessary to see a change in your cravings, eliminating sugar cravings and see changes in your health. One thing about going cold turkey off of sugar is you can start to feel worse or the cravings for sugar can increase at first. That’s ok because sugar is so addictive your body has to break the craving and addiction. You may feel dizzy, fatigued, tired, lethargic (blood sugar changes), crabby, anxious or many more.
You’re going to want to run back to sugar, but keep pushing on because those cravings will subside and you will start to feel a lot better again. You are also changing the fuel your body is used to running on. You can be a sugar burner or a fat burner and we burn sugar (and crave sugar) if our diet is full of sugar. We want to burn fat and can become a fat burner, which is healthy, by eating a diet low in sugar and high in good fats (read more about healthy fats here and here). It takes your body time to make this transition so make sure to give yourself at least 30 days of no sugar. I recommend living a lifestyle free of processed sugars and I believe it can be done too. To start, set goals you can achieve and move on from there.
*If you are still experiencing sugar cravings and have cut out refined sugars and low sugar overall, you have a gut problem that is causing your cravings and need to heal that to get to the root of your problem. Contact me to learn more about healing your digestive system.
How Much Refined Sugar do I Cut Out?
Just because refined sugars are on the safe list doesn’t mean that you can have unlimited amounts of honey, maple syrup and even stevia (even though it is an herb). I’m not opposed to using these natural sweeteners, but I want your body to get used to the sweetness that comes from whole foods, fruit and even veggies. Don’t re-train your taste buds to want a lot of un-refined, natural sweeteners. My recommendation is to decrease the amount of honey and maple syrup. Use stevia where you need something to be sweet because it doesn’t affect your blood sugar and is the safest sweetener out there. Honey and maple syrup will still affect your blood sugar and the less amounts you can use the better.
The less sweetener you use the less it will affect your blood sugar and the healthier your body will be over your life time. Don’t feel bad for needing to add stevia and some sweetness to a recipe, my biggest word of caution is don’t fully rely on these natural sweeteners. Real food tastes great and let those flavors really shine in a dish or dessert. When you choose to enjoy natural sweeteners, fully love and enjoy every taste or bite or sip of it. Don’t feel guilty, the guilt can be worse than the sugar. Choose grace over guilt.
Resources/ Books to help cut out sugar
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Bradleigh Huizinga says
This is a great, very thorough article… thank you! Pinned it because this is the sort of thing my following needs to hear! :)
So erythritol is okay to consume? Do you have any preference on the Bai 5 drinks? Thanks!
Meghan Birt says
I’m just coming back from maternity leave so forgive me for taking so long to get back to your comment. I am 50/50 on erythritol. And I will try to explain. IT’s a sugar alcohol like xylitol and I use that sparingly in my own kitchen. It’s not a sugar, so it doesn’t really have an effect on your blood sugar. But it’s really about the quality of the product and how well your body does with it. Some people get digestive disturbances and others just notice they feel worse on it. If the quality is high, then I’d say give it a try. If the quality is low and you don’t know where it’s from, it may be best to avoid it. But if you’re looking for something to drink that is better than cola or something else full of sugar, I guess the Bai 5 drinks would work. I’d never heard of them before and just had to look it up.
You said to avoid Rurbinado sugar. Do you mean Turbinado sugar?
Meghan Birt says
Oh yes… gotta love spelling errors. Sorry about that!