Dr. Sonya Nobbe, ND
Are sugar alternatives safe? Most of us are aware of the negative health consequences of sugar, but what about their chemical replacements in the variety of “sugar-free” food choices? A recent study by Washington University researchers published in the journal Diabetes Care, suggests that ingestion of sucralose (Splenda) may increase insulin levels by up to 20%, thereby promoting diabetes and weight gain. Aspartame is another common sugar alternative with known health risks, such as migraines and seizures, when consumed in high quantities or by sensitive people. Fructose can cause a diabetes-like disease in the liver called “fatty liver”. The science that links both sugar and its replacements to chronic disease symptoms is quite extensive. Here are some practical tips to help you reduce these ingredients in your daily routine, without going on a diet!
1. Stevia is an herbal sugar replacement (i.e. not artificial) that is chemically dis-similar to sugar. This means that it’s metabolized safely by other mechanisms that don’t disturb normal sugar metabolism and weight management.
2. Add a bit of salt! Salt can actually enhance your perception of the sweetness of some dishes, and if you balance this with addition of high-potassium foods, the dish is far less likely to affect blood pressure. (See our article on blood pressure and salt, here.)
3. Enhance the natural sweetness of some starchy veggies (e.g. squash, sweet potato), by roasting them instead of steaming or stir-frying them. You could also try adding carmelized onions or shredded beats to your dish.
4. Prepare healthy snacks ahead of time and keep them on hand to prevent getting so hungry that you binge on breads, baked goods, or desserts. Gluten and dairy-free options include roasted chickpeas, raw nuts and seeds, veggies and a bean dip or nut butter, lentil salad, hard-boiled egg, avocado, or a baked meat ball frozen from a previous dinner.
5. Subscribe to a food share from a local farm and attend the local farmers’ market regularly. The intensity of flavour in local organic food makes it easier to opt for a less sweet dish.
6. Eat mindfully. If you’re going to enjoy a sugary treat, eat only a small portion, eat it slowly, and savour every bite. Notice the texture and how the rest of your body feels when you eat it. Notice how you feel 15 and 60 minutes later and increase your awareness of how sugar affects your body. (Consider taking a meditation course which may also help you reduce sugar cravings by addressing stress hormone balance.)
7. Some people also reduce their sugar intake by mixing a smaller amount of the treat with something else, like almonds and chocolate chips, or strawberries in chocolate.
8. Avoid sugar cravings from fatigue by shifting your daily routine to include more sleep at night and more exercise during the week. These lifestyle changes also often improve blood sugar metabolism and stress hormone balance, which further reduces sugar cravings.
9. Experiment with making your own dressings and sauces, including Dijon vinaigrettes on vegetable side-dishes and creamy avocado spreads. Commercial sauces, such as ketchup and spaghetti sauce, often contain a lot of added sugar.
10. If you’re ready to go another step further, work with a knowledgeable health practitioner to balance your metabolism to reduce cravings. Cravings are powerful biochemical signals involving hormones and brain chemicals. Willpower is often not enough to combat them. In fact, some brain studies suggest that sugar cravings affect the brain reward centres just as intensely as cravings experienced by drug addicts. Other studies suggest that sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine. Overcoming sugar cravings requires a multi-pronged and individualized approach that addresses inflammation, serotonin imbalances and mood disorders, cortisol levels, and blood sugar imbalances.
Reducing your sugar intake not only reduces your exposure to some harmful chemicals, but it also shifts your brain chemical balance so that cravings are less intense and a smaller amount of sugar offers the same reward as previously enjoyed, after just a few days. The effect further allows some metabolic imbalances to heal so that sugar affects your health less severely. What a free feeling, knowing that you have more control over your choices for which foods to nourish yourself with!