Sugar. Just the word conjures up visions of cupcakes, cookies, and candy. Pink cotton candy calls out to me as I envision bouncing on clouds of fluff. And I’m brought back down to earth quickly at the thought of actually eating any of it! With those ethereal visions come the reminders of tooth pain, migraines, and stiff, painful joints. No thanks! Though I’ve eaten a little sugar here and there in the years since I originally eliminated it, it has never again been part of my life or diet on a regular basis. But, I took baby steps to get to where I’m at today, which is limited even in fruits and natural sugars.
If you’re just getting started eliminating sugar, odds are, you’re confused and frustrated because 1. sugar is in everything and 2. sugar goes by a LOT of different names. How do you know which ones are safe and which ones to steer clear of? Below, I’ll help you break it all down in this guide to sugars.
Sugar, By Any Other Name… Is Still Sugar
First things first. Sugar, no matter how you package it, is still sugar. Honey, fruit, and table sugar are all sugar to your body. However, our bodies do process different sugars a little differently, and, while some sugar sources are void of any nutritional value, some offer some minor benefits, while others are downright poisonous.
These sweeteners are the best natural options available. They should be your first choice when a craving strikes!
- honey, especially raw. Raw honey is not only a great option to satisfy your sweet tooth, but it also offers some health benefits. According to this study, honey has been reported to contain around 200 substances, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Honey also has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, and was used in ancient medicine for wound treatment and more. Honey has even been found to be as effective as prescription medications for treating colitis! Another study found that not only did honey cause less of a blood sugar spike than white sugar, but it also may be helpful in treating diabetes, and showed health benefits for the liver, gut, hormonal health and more! A daily spoonful of raw honey not only satisfies a sweet tooth, but it packs quite the nutritional punch! Look for lighter colored, thicker/solid honey labeled “raw” for most nutritional benefit. (I generally don’t worry about buying raw honey if I plan to bake with it.)
- dates. Early in my sugar-free days, I discovered dates in the bulk bins of my local grocery store. I fell in love with them and have used them in a variety of ways since! Dates are rich in fiber and boast a high antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral content. This study found dates to be anti-microbial, tumor-inhibiting, anti-inflammatory, and even to help with infertility and relaxation during labor and childbirth! Try making a date paste or caramel sauce with just water and dates to sub as a sweetener in your next recipe, or blend them up with some vanilla, eggs and your milk of choice, then put in an ice cream maker for a delicious date-sweetened ice cream. Or, you can always pop one or two straight in your kisser for a quick treat! Make sure to buy pitted dates or to remove the pits before eating.
- maple syrup, pure. One of my favorite sweeteners thanks to the rich flavor, maple syrup is the boiled, concentrated sap of the maple tree. Like honey and dates, maple syrup also contains antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, including manganese and zinc. One study even found maple syrup to have an inhibitory effect on cancer cells!
- coconut sugar and maple sugar. These sugars, like those mentioned above, contain vitamins and minerals, but are a little more refined. Coconut sugar is made by dehydrating the sap of palm trees, while maple sugar is made by cooking out the moisture from maple syrup. Both are good replacements in recipes that do best with a granulated sweetener. I adore the texture and flavor of maple sugar, but find my body responds similarly to maple sugar as refined white sugar. It is nice for an occasional special treat though! I like this one, which you can also find here. Another benefit of coconut sugar is that it is low on the glycemic index, meaning it may be a good choice for diabetics.
- rapadura, sucanat. These less-refined versions of good ol’ white cane sugar are still… sugar. Yes, they have a little more mineral content, but will still be processed as sugar in your body. The darker the sugar, the more mineral content, but these are not good options for regular use.
- white sugar. This basic, popular sweetener offers no nutritional benefits. It has been completely refined and is devoid of minerals. The ill health effects of sugar consumption range from obesity to diabetes and more.
- stevia. This natural sweetener makes my “bad” list for a couple of reasons. First of all, I just don’t trust anything that is “zero calorie!” Let me explain, when your taste buds absorb something sweet, they signal to your body to prepare for sugars to enter the body. Your blood sugar drops, but then your body doesn’t actually get any sugar to replace it. So then your body has to work overtime to pull sugars from other parts, like your liver, causing a hormone surge and stressing the adrenals. Aside from all that, stevia is often combined with other sweeteners, like artificial sweeteners, so you have to be careful when selecting a source. Plus, it just tastes bad!
- artificial sweeteners. Made solely in a laboratory, artificial sweeteners cause a number of health problems, most notably migraine headaches. Don’t fall into the trap of believing foods labeled “sugar free” are healthy alternatives to those containing sugar. Artificial sweeteners affect brain health, and can contribute to behavioral problems in children. Additionally, they can retrain our taste buds to prefer the intensely-sweet flavor of fake foods over the natural sweetness of healthy, whole foods like fruit. They also cause us to crave more sweetness than we were ever supposed to, because the unnatural sweetness is like nothing found in nature. There are many artificial sweeteners, under a number of brand names. Watch out for these: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose.
- high fructose corn syrup (also called fructose syrup, corn syrup, and fructose). You will find this in many packaged foods. HFCS is responsible, in part, for a growing obesity problem, diseases such as type 2 diabetes, and hyperactivity in children. Because it is chemically-derived from corn starch, it has a much higher sugar content than sugar itself. The high-fructose makeup of this syrup means that instead of our bodies processing it slowly, it goes straight to the blood stream. No wonder it makes kids hyperactive and causes diabetes.
- xylitol and other sugar alcohols. While these sugars are “naturally-derived,” they are not naturally made, and use a process called sugar hydrogenation, which actually uses a nickel-aluminum derivative in the industrial process. The worst part for me, however, is that xylitol is often made from corn, which is highly allergenic for a lot of people. You can read about why we avoid corn here. Sugar alcohols also pose the same “zero calorie” problem as stevia.
- beet sugar. It is estimated that 50-60% of sugar in the US is actually derived from sugar beets, and food manufacturers are not required to label it as such. The problem with this is that the majority of sugar beets are GMO, so not only does this sugar pose all of the other health concerns of sugar that we’ve discussed, but if you avoid GMOs, they could be sneaking in if you eat sugar frequently.
If you read my recent post on eliminating sugars, you might have picked up a few tips for fighting through cravings. My best tips include:
- eat a small spoonful of raw honey
- take a detox bath
- make sure you’re using the bathroom every day, or use this supplement to help
- distract yourself with an activity that doesn’t include food
- make a treat that uses natural sugars
- pray, pray, pray for the cravings to go away!
Eliminating sugar from your diet takes commitment, but it can be done! It’s so important for your health that you take this leap, and make the choice once and for all to cut refined sugars! Try it for 30 days and see how you feel… you won’t regret it, I promise!
For some inspiration, check out my Pinterest boards, where I pin naturally-sweetened goodies and treats, and be sure to join my Facebook group, Heal Together Community, where we support and encourage one another in this healthy eating journey!