Between work, family, friends, errands and exercise, many people find that they are constantly striving to find the right balance in life. And when it comes to maintaining a healthy, wholesome diet, we face yet another balancing act — one that is very often compromised by the seemingly endless slew of confusing, contradictory diet and health information that’s out there.
For quite some time, sugar has been a source of much of this confusion. We are told of the amazing health benefits of fruit one minute, and warned about the dangers of consuming carbohydrates the next. And through all the ups and downs, people find themselves constantly drawn to sweet foods. This should come as no surprise, as we are actually designed to seek and enjoy sugar. Our “sweet” taste-bud receptors are at the very tip of our tongue, and our bodies and brains burn glucose for energy. Unfortunately, the overabundance of concentrated, refined sugar products in our current food supply mean that it is far too easy to consume far too much of it. Processed, refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup are in everything from cereal to condiments, and when you add sodas and desserts to the equation, it’s easy to understand how Americans have come to consume an average of 40 teaspoons of added sugar every single day. As well as contributing to dental problems and possibly obesity, excessive consumption of processed sugar can increase triglyceride levels, putting you at greater risk for developing heart problems and type 2 diabetes.
So how does sugar fit into a healthy diet? Does it have any place at all? The answer, in short, is yes. The focus in a healthy diet should not be on avoiding sugar altogether, but in obtaining it from healthful, natural sources that provide the body with nutrients as well as sustained energy.
Try to avoid or reduce your consumption of products containing processed sugar. Aside from the fact that the sugar may contain animal products, you could be undermining the health benefits you’ve gained from following a plant-based diet. Sugary drinks, cookies, ice creams and candies may provide momentary pleasure, but offer little or nothing in terms of nutritional value.
Fresh Fruits are an obvious choice when seeking natural sweetness. As well as being incredibly delicious, fresh fruits are an amazing source of vitamins and anti-oxidants, which help to boost immunity, and provide protection against disease. Sugar consumed as part of a whole, fresh fruit will not effect blood sugar in the same manner as processed sugar or high-fructose corn syrup; instead, the fiber present in fruits allow the sugars to be released at a stable, steady rate. Good news for fruit fans! As well as incorporating fruit into breakfasts, juices and smoothies, try replacing sugary snacks and desserts with fresh berries, frozen grapes or melon wedges. You can also keep fruit consumption fun and interesting by sampling unusual and exotic varieties.
Dried Fruits are another option, and make an excellent addition to granola, cookies and even savory dishes like tagine. High in fiber, anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals, dried fruits are a great alternative for times when fresh fruit is unavailable or difficult to eat. Both dehydrated and freeze-dried fruits are widely available, and carrying convenient snack packs can help deter cravings for sugar-laden candy bars and other highly processed snack foods. Due their low water content, dried fruits are a fairly concentrated source of calories and sugar, making it easy to over-indulge. Be mindful of this, and stick with fresh fruit when possible.
Dates are another deliciously sweet, natural source of sugar. Boasting high levels of fiber, iron, potassium and calcium, they have a wonderfully soft consistency and honey-like flavor. Dates are particularly good for making raw desserts, like these Cookie Dough Balls or this Hazelnut Cacao Torte. Due to their relatively low water content, dates are a more concentrated source of sugar than most fresh fruits, so moderation is advisable.
Vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, beets and carrots are highly nutritious sources of natural sugars. Packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, sweet starchy vegetables are useful for curbing sugar cravings. Because they release sugars slowly into the blood stream, they help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide long-lasting energy. If you regularly fall prey to sweet cravings, try incorporating some delicious beet or sweet potato recipes into your regular repertoire.
When it comes to desserts and baking, liquid sweeteners like agave nectar, maple syrup and brown rice syrup are more natural alternatives to refined white sugar, and good for occasional use. When possible, use a combination of fresh fruit puree (like banana or dates) and a smaller amount of liquid sweetener, for added fiber.
Just remember- you don’t have to drive yourself crazy trying to be perfect. That decadent vegan cupcake that lured you in yesterday is not going to ruin your health. But in the interest of maintaining a healthy balance when it comes to sugar, it’s best to keep it natural as often as you can.
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