Sugar is not evil, if we consider when we’re having it and what type we’re having.
As you know I’ve tried many different approaches to eating – paleo, low carb, high protein, vegan, grain free, blood type etc. but always retained a roll of fat on my stomach, even when the rest of me was slim. It was when I got callipre testing done and had my biosignature assessed I discovered that fat stored on the stomach is related to increased cortisol levels and sugar intake, and blood tests confirmed elevated cortisol levels. That’s when I started eating as I do now, with my low sugar high protein anytime foods, and having my sugars and carbs when I exercise.
Sugar, in its many forms (fructose, sucrose, dextrose, glucose) is a fast burning carbohydrate and an essential fuel for endurance athletes (exercising for over 90 minutes).
The problem with sugar is when we have processed high glycemic index (GI) sugars in our diet all the time. GI is measured on a scale of 0 upwards, with 100 being the value of pure glucose. The higher the GI rating the quicker and higher it causes blood sugar levels to spike and crash. This presents a problem for two reasons
- it places stress on the adrenal glands and endocrine system interferring with cortisol levels and
- sugar’s addictive, so when our blood sugar levels crash we search for more sugar to raise them again.
There are a few approaches we can take to managing blood sugar levels
- exclude it completely from our diets
- consume sugar along with protein, which will release slower and therefore lower the GI
- choose sweetners with a lower GI
- enjoy foods with high GI values only during or post-endurance workouts
When I write my recipes I try to avoid or reduce the sugar content, and when its necessary I use natural sugars – raw local honey, maple syrup, dates and occasionally stevia.
Maple syrup is derived from the sap of the maple tree, has a gorgeous caramely flavour similar to brown sugar, and it is readily available in groccery stores. While maple has a lower GI ranking (at 53) than refined cane sugar, there are some other natural options if you’re concious of blood sugar levels.
Honey has a similar GI value to maple (at 50) and the two can easily be substituted, with the key difference being the caramel versus floral flavours. Store bought honey however has be heated and processed, so I choose raw local honey, which studies are showing helps to reduce environmental allergies due to allergens being delivered to the body in manageable doses.
Stevia is a powdered sugar which comes from the leaves of the stevia plant. It’s said to be sweeter than cane sugar. It contains zero calories, has a zero GI ranking, and is said to have zero taste, however I find it has a bit of an after-taste. The low GI makes it an excellent option for diabetics to assist in managing blood sugar levels, and a good option as an everyday sweetner for those dishes that just can’t go without sugar.
Dates are often used as a sweetner in ‘healthy’ and raw diet recipes. They are a completely unprocessed source of sugar with a very high GI of 103 (even higher than glucose). Dates are therefore a great source of energy for endurance athletes who make their own gels as it delivers energy to the muscles quickly.
Also remember what you’re consuming with the sugar will impact the GI. When protein is combined in a meal with sugar it lowers the GI as protein takes longer for us to digest.
A note on processed sugars…
Agave syrup (or nectar) is derived from mature agave plants through a process where the liquid is boiled and separated. Agave is a fructose based sweetner available from the health food aisle in most groccery stores, making it an easy one-for-one substitute for honey or maple syrup in recipes. Although not actually raw, agave is used in many raw recipes and is hailed for its low GI and subtle taste that can easily blend with other flavours. Agave surup is composed of inulin, an indigestable carbohydrate, and has a very high concentration of fructose (higher than naturally found in fruits). This has led to much debate over whether agave is actually good for you. Visit Food Renegade for an indepth look at some of the concerns with Agave syrup.
Xylitol, despite sounding like a chemical, is a natural sweetner derived from corn cobs and birch trees. Its benefits are that it can be substituted one for one for cane sugar or refined sugar, has a GI of only 7, and no aftertaste like stevia. However like agave syrup xylitol is not raw, and has been processed, and corn is one of the most genetically modified crops, which I try to steer clear of.
Coconut sugar and yacon syrup are also processed sugars which are popular for their low GI values.
Regardless of this debate I prefer to choose natural sweetners that I could harvest from scratch, hence I recommend choosing the best option for your needs from maple syrup, raw local honey, stevia and dates.
And a word of warning, the majority of sugar free recipes actually contain sugar in some form, often dates and other fruits. It’s another good reason to make your own snacks and meals. When I get stuck and I have sugar when I really shouldn’t (usually I succumb to banana binges!) , it starts me on a sugar craving cycle again.
So when I am craving sugar and not exercising I use the following snacks to satisfy my cravings
- drink some water – sugar cravings are often due to dehydration
- have a rooibos or herbal tea – rooibos is caffine free, so I can have as many as I need to get it through the day – I especially love grabbing a mint sprig or lemon myrtle leaf fresh from the garden and adding it to boiling water in a gorgeous cup – its so calming and peaceful watching it steep
- have a veggie juice/smoothie – I usually have low fructose fruit in my smoothies (such as blueberries), so I can trick myself in to thinking its a sweet treat
- apple slices with almond or other nut butter
- sugar free carob (don’t knock it until you try it!) – I love it mixed with almonds, sunflower seeds, pepitas and gojis in a trail mix
- almond milk with vanilla and cinnamon – using either vanilla extract or cinnamon tricks me in to thinking its something sweet
- super seed museli with coconut yoghurt or almond milk and berries
- sugar free protein balls
- Sarah Wilson’s apple with grilled haloumi and cinnamon is also great when I’m able to have dairy
For a comparison of GI values of sugar visit the Sugars and Sweetners Guide.