I support reduction of sugar in the diet but want to offer some sound alternatives to sugar and explain more about why we crave sugar and how to combat these cravings. Many sugar alternatives are down right dangerous, others are counting on consumers to be guinea pigs for identifying any long-term side-effects. I’d like to talk a little about safe sugar substitutes and their questionable counterparts, so that you can feel comfortable with your choices.
Why We Crave Sugar
We don’t crave sugar because we are bad people who cannot control ourselves. The cravings are the way that our bodies tell us that something isn’t quite right. Some underlying causes of sugar cravings might be: low blood sugar, hormone imbalances, depression, and low serotonin. Work with a qualified practitioner to address underlying causes of sugar cravings.
How to Combat the Cravings
Control blood sugar by eating 5 small, well-balanced meals/day. Eat lots of fiber to balance hormones and help to keep the liver clean. Fiber and protein with each meal will help to slow the metabolism of sugar. Eat a small piece of very dark chocolate (over 70% cacao) every day to help curb cravings. Exercise, sleep and adequate nutrition will help to keep unhealthy cravings at bay.
The Problem with Sugar
Sugar, while necessary to feed the brain and muscles, can carry consequences when over-consumed. Sugar decreases immune function, feeds harmful pathogens such as Candida (yeast) and bacteria, and depletes levels of serotonin (other side effects are too numerous to mention). Low levels of serotonin actually trigger more sugar cravings. Some symptoms of sugar sensitivity are: headaches, insomnia, aggression, panic attacks, irritability, mood swings, and depression, not to mention obesity, diabetes and inflammation.
Hidden Sources of Sugar
When most people think of avoiding sugar, they think most often of hard candy, pop and other obvious choices. I want everyone to become more aware of hidden sources of sugar such as bread, pasta, rice, tropical fruit, other high glycemic index foods, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, beet sugar, glucose, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin, dextrose, sorbitol, fructose, corn sugar, fruit juice concentrate, barley malt, caramel, and carob syrup and don’t forget to consider alcohol (beer, wine, etc…) as sugar sources as well!
Potentially Problematic Sugar Alternatives
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet): Aspartame has had the most complaints of any food additive available to the public. It’s been linked with MS, lupus, fibromyalgia and other central nervous disorders. Possible side effects of aspartame include headaches, migraines, panic attacks, dizziness, irritability, nausea, intestinal discomfort, skin rash, and nervousness. Some researchers have linked aspartame with depression and manic episodes. It may also contribute to male infertility.
Sucralose (Splenda): sucralose is made by chlorinating a sugar molecule. Chlorination makes this molecule unrecognizable as sugar to our systems. We do not know what the long term implications will be for using this product. Some preliminary animal (rat) studies have shown that sucralose causes shrunken thymus glands and enlarged kidneys and liver.
Healthier Sugar Alternatives
Stevia: I recommend the herb stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) as a natural sweetener to my patients. Stevia has been used for over 400 years without ill effect. It is low in carbohydrates and about 200-300 x as sweet as sugar. Only a small amount is needed. It is available in many forms at local health food stores.
Xylitol: Xylitol can be derived from birch tree pulp. Xylitol may also help to prevent cavities, osteoporosis, oral candida infections and ear infections. Other sugar alcohols like sorbitol, maltitol and mannitol are generally safe but in large quantities may act as a natural laxative and can cause diarrhea, bloating and flatulence. Small amounts do not seem to carry these side effects.
Agave Nectar: Agave syrup is extracted from the agave plant indigenous to Mexico. The juice is extracted, filtered, then heated which turns the carbohydrates into sugars. The primary sugar molecule is called inulin. Agave nectar is as thinner than honey and sweeter than sugar but is considered low glycemic index as it carries fewer calories per serving. Substitute 1/3 cup agave nectar for every 1 cup of sugar called for in recipes.