Kicking the Sugar Habit
Change ultimately, at least, brings with it a renewed sense of hope. Fortunately, at least one viable way we can change and exert control is to spend more time in the kitchen preparing wholesome meals that can nourish both our body and our creative spirit. We can make shopping and cooking an adventure; we can make a conscious effort to read food labels and make better choices; we can tap into the glories of a local farmer’s market or CSA; and, we can explore ways to cut back on our consumption of sugar. Because sugar fosters depression and anxiety, suppresses the immune system, and leads to a host of acute and chronic diseases, if we do little else to help ourselves in today’s world, thinking of ways to cut back on sugar can help us feel better and improve our health.
What motivates us to change? Maybe a medical condition forces us to cut out or cut back on sugar. Maybe, because carbohydrate and sugar tolerance decreases with age, we just sense we now need to. Or, maybe, feeling sick or not quite ourselves, we think to cut back on sugar as we search for strategies that might bring us better health.
Of course, everyone changes at their own pace and in their own unique ways. Sometimes we might attempt a “cold turkey” approach. It brings certainty and can be reassuring. Last October in response to my Excitoxins newsletter, a reader living in California wrote that she resolved overnight never again to touch diet sodas. I did the same with coffee three years ago after I fell down a flight of basement stairs and was hospitalized to have my shoulder rebuilt. Thinking that I would not feel the added pain of a caffeine withdrawal headache and wanting something positive at the end of the experience, I swore off coffee, a pleasure I had enjoyed and relied upon since my college days.
My journey cutting back on sugar was very different. It was gradual and not even intended. Sugar was a big part of my life in my early years. A meal was defined by what was offered for dessert, with other foods on the plate serving simply as requirements on the way to the only item that mattered.
Leaving sugar behind began for me at age 16 when I started to work in local restaurants to save money for college. At work and later at college, I could eat my fill of fresh salads, vegetables, and meats. It was then that I began to realize that meat, vegetables, and fruits felt better and gave me more energy. It was a simple case of “crowding out” with wholesome foods. In time, my tastes changed, leading to new eating habits that had nothing to do with “discipline” or “denial.”
It occurs to me that a good way to cut back on sugar is to change the way we think about it. In today’s world when sugar is cheap and readily available, does it still deserve a place in our hearts as a special “treat?” Certainly, to think of sugar as a treat made sense 200 years ago, when it was a rare and scarce commodity. But today, without a question, we put sugar in the center of our daily life and celebrations, in the form of cakes, cookies, pies and ice cream to highlight the birthday party, the wedding, or the holiday feast.
Rampant diabetes and other chronic disease can help us see sugar as a cheap commodity that does nothing to enhance our health and emotional well-being. This realization was the impetus to my own change. As a child I spent every available nickel on candy. Now, I far prefer the taste of farm-fresh whole foods. To me, the rich custard-smoothness of a freshly-baked sweet potato oven roasted in its own skin beats a Snickers bar, any day.
Sugar is fragmented. It creates imbalance that can set off cravings and binges, as well as acute and chronic disease. (See April09 newsletter) I believe the road to cutting back on sugar, and it can be a gradual one, starts with a shift in perception, followed through with intention and awareness. Awareness means simply paying attention to how you feel. Whatever your reasons to think of cutting back on sugar (and I trust you are since you have read this far), I set out in this newsletter to give you tools to decode your sugar cravings, to make substitutions, and to have fun in the kitchen along the way.
Tools to Decode Sugar Cravings1
Life is motion. Ironically, we stay balanced and centered only by motion. Life is never static. A biker stays upright and balanced only by forward motion and by constant subtle adjustments with the handle bars. Likewise, in a world ruled by polar forces of energy, we are always trying to right ourselves. Only by constant efforts to select, move, and adjust are we able to seek balance and “centeredness.” We eat a meal and are full. Pretty soon we are hungry again. We sleep and are renewed, but by nighttime we are again ready for the refreshment that sleep can bring.
Stress creates imbalance and so does exercise. Stress is contractive and makes us crave expansive sugary foods. Exercise makes us feel good when it generates endorphins, but it is also acidic and requires alkalizing antidotes in the form of deep breathing and alkalizing foods.
Of course, we also create imbalance every time we eat. With a salty chip, we crave a sweet drink. Or, with our breakfast eggs (contractive) we have a grapefruit or orange juice (expansive). Also, with eggs (acid-forming), we drink coffee and use salt (both alkalizing). And, with our eggs and buttered toast (all Wood Phase), we might crave the addition of some sweet jelly (Earth), because too many fatty-sour Wood foods can deplete the sweet energy of Earth.2
Even a meal of substantial calories, protein, fats, and carbohydrates that looks satisfying and balanced to the Western mind might set off wild cravings for sugar. Take, for example, a dinner of roasted chicken, sautéed carrots, green beans, whole wheat bread and butter, and a lemon tart for dessert (all Wood Phase). Even such a major meal can send us in search of sweets (Earth).
To decode sugar cravings, we need to rely upon a variety of food concepts, models, and principles of balance (see below), including:
- Western model…calories, as well as protein, fats, and carbohydrates;
- Food energetics, which incorporates the idea that every food has a temperature, taste, and direction of energy. Lamb is a “hot” food, for example, and it is sometime coupled with cooling mint jelly. Foods, of course, also have their own taste, and sometimes a combination of tastes. The five tastes are associated with their own specific actions in the body,3 and they also correspond to a direction of energy: Bitter and salty, which are downward draining oppose the upward energies of the pungent, sweet (binding), and sour flavors;
- Expansive/Contractive, where contractive foods trigger sugar craving. Here, peaceful balance and a “centered” feeling are best achieved by selecting plants foods like beans and grains which are at the center, or “fulcrum,” of the continuum; compared to a more active energy generated by eating from the poles of the yin-yang “see-saw;”
- Acid/Alkaline, where acidic sugar requires offsetting alkalizing foods;
- Chinese 5-Phase Theory, where sweet Earth foods can satisfy sugar cravings; and
- Lifestyle model, of key importance, particularly as it relates to stress and sleep, chewing our food and paying attention to how different foods make us feel. It also includes having a life passion filled with meaningful work, a sense of gratitude and a spiritual component to living.
We can best decode sugar cravings when we take the time to become familiar with these models. Over time, they begin to make sense. See the Resource Reading at the conclusion.
Factors That Underlie Cravings for Sugar
For me, a lack of sleep is the biggest force sending me in search of carbohydrates. Besides lack of sleep, stress and emotional upheaval are also big factors that can send us to the cookie jar.
Another factor that drives cravings is the relationship of sugar and protein.
Carbohydrate and protein metabolism work hand in hand. Both the Western and Yin/Yang model illustrate this. When we eat meat, which is concentrated protein and fat, we crave concentrated carbohydrates like sugar. And, meat, contractive/yang demands expansive/yin offsets like sugar (see discussion below). Also, in order to metabolize refined sugar our body “likes” meat as a buffer. The rich minerals in meat help the body metabolize these concentrated calories so it does not have to tap into its mineral stores stockpiled in tissues, bones, and teeth.
The key to keep in mind when the goal is to cut out sugar (and calories), limit red meats, which set up cravings for sugar.
Metabolic stress. Another consideration is blood sugar levels. Because carbohydrate and protein metabolism are inter-related, when we eat a lot of sugar and other concentrated sweets, our body needs to be anchored by additional concentrated animal protein and fats in order to stabilize blood sugar. Have you ever noticed how much better you feel when you pair a glass of wine (an expansive sugar) with adequate protein and fats to avoid a hangover? For our body, might it not be much the same with sugar? We need protein and fats as a balancing buffer. Unlike alcohol, our body does not react to sugar with the same hangover warning, but the imbalance is there nonetheless, through a surge in insulin, along with dehydration, depletion,4 and cravings.
Counter-intuitive perhaps, but this is why “junk-food” vegetarians (who rely upon a diet of sugar and refined carbohydrates) often crave sugar. Without eating animal protein to counterbalance and buffer this expansive energy, they set in motion a blood sugar roller-coaster of “sugar-insulin-sugar,” along with insatiable cravings for more and more sugar-charged treats. Ironically, “like” craves “like:” Contractive foods (chips) do send us for expansive opposites (a Coke), but this safeguard relationship does not hold so well for expansive foods. We can eat/drink a lot of expansive “spacey” goodies without craving contractive offsets.
In addition, vegetarians can crave sugar, and acid-forming food, to offset the alkalizing nature of a diet heavily weighted toward fruits and vegetables. See acid/alkaline discussion and table, below.
20 Reasons to Crave Sugar:5
- Not enough sleep. (This commands first place. Most of us are sleep-deprived)
- Not enough emotional support and sense of connection.
- Too much stress.
- Too few wholesome foods.
- Not enough…
- Sweet taste
- Expansive foods
- Acid-forming foods
- Earth phase foods
- Fire phase foods
- Too much…
- Contractive foods
- Alkalizing foods
- Carbohydrates vs. Protein
- Protein vs. Carbohydrates
- “Wood” phase foods
Specific Strategies to Curb Sugar Cravings
- The easiest way to cut out sugar is to prepare your own whole meals since 70% of the sugar we consume comes from packaged/prepared products.6
- The vital force energy of whole foods satisfies and the creative process of preparation provides its own form of gratification.
- Allow enough time at every meal to chew well. Sweetness and complex tastes are unlocked when we chew well. Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth and the true essence of whole foods is tapped only when we sit down long enough to chew well and enjoy our food. Whole plant foods such as grains, beans, and vegetables become sweeter the longer they are chewed, so chewing well can go a long way toward satisfying cravings for sweets.
- Try to cook in advance and have plenty of sweet, whole foods on hand. Some foods, as outlined on page 7 are inherently sweet. Foods all have an associated temperature, so you can choose warming sweet potatoes, oats, or the heat of lamb in the cold winter months; or cooling melon and pears, salad greens, tempeh, and barley in the hot summer months.
- Baking at high heat is a natural way to convert the carbohydrate energy of vegetables and grains into delectable sweet treats. Roasting root vegetables caramelizes their natural sweet starches into sugars, concentrating and intensifying their natural sweetness. Through the magic of heat and stable saturated fats, we can alter a pungent onion into sweet velvety smoothness.
- Have plenty of sweet substitutes like roasted parsnips, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, dried fruits, and perhaps some bananas, dates, and figs on hand. At the first sign of a sugar craving, try one of these first.
- Try salting fruit, even apples and strawberries. It intensifies their sweetness.
- Foods that are pungent, sour, or spicy help curb sweet cravings. Try radishes (at the end of the meal), lemon juice and water, or spices like cinnamon to satisfy the sweet tooth. And, cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves regulate blood sugar.
- Raw carrots help raise blood sugar effectively but less dramatically than sugar, and for a longer time interval.
- Try to give up soda and other sugary drinks, and have plenty of water. Sometimes our energy fails us simply because we are dehydrated.
- Substitute fruit juices and sauces in cooking, as well as fruits and stewed fruits.
- Learn to read food labels, especially for hidden forms of sugar (September 07).
- The best natural sweeteners, with the greatest nutritive value and lowest sugar content (compared to sugar’s 99%), are amasake (40%), brown rice and barley malt (50%), and maple syrup and molasses (both at 65%). Rice syrup and barley malt are less disruptive to the mineral balance of the body, along with maple syrup which is indigenous to the Northeast.
- If you do give in to a sugar craving, enjoy it. We are not supposed to be good all of the time. Diversions are adventures. They are wonderful experiments, but we owe ourselves to take note as if on a real adventure, and make sure we pay attention afterward to how we feel. It is all information. And, this information just might make veering off course less attractive the next time.
Whole Foods That Are Inherently Sweet
(From Traditional Chinese Medicine. Note that some food have multiple flavors: sr=sour; sa=salty; b=bitter; p=pungent.)
Expansive (Yin) and Contractive (Yang) Foods
for the “Tweaking” of Energy and Moods
Foods and cooking strategies offer vast opportunities to alter our energy, our focus, and our moods. We can take corn, an expansive grain, as illustrated below. Corn itself might make us a little on the “spacey” side. But, if we then grind it and deep fry it into a chip, we can transform it into a more yang, contracted source of energy (see cooking section, below) that can perk our adrenals and help us focus for concentrated work at our desk.
During my years at home as a mother of young children, it suited me well to be mostly vegetarian, eating a lot of beans, grains, and vegetables. Eating near the “fulcrum” of the yin/yang continuum, I enjoyed a more passive, centered, calming, “soft” kind of energy. In contrast, people working in stressful jobs that require high levels of sustained energy often find balance by eating a lot of meat (yang) and then balancing this with sugar and alcohol (yin). Eating at the polar extremes like this can work well for a “Samurai” competitive life style.
◄Expansive (Yin) and Contractive (Yang) Foods►
◄More Yin (Expansive) More Yang (Contractive) ►
Broad Food Categories
◄Oils Fruits Beans Vegetables Grains Animal Foods Salt►
◄Yin (Expansive) YANG (Contractive)►
◄Split Peas Pinto Beans Lentils Chickpeas Azuki Beans►
◄Tomato Cucumber Cabbage Squash Onion Turnip Carrot►
◄Red Radish Turnip Daikon Rutabaga Carrot Burdock►
◄Corn Oats Barley Brown Rice Wheat Rye Millet Buckwheat►
◄Yin (Expansive) YANG (Contractive)►
◄Raw Boiled Pressure-Cooked Sauteed Baked►
Acid and Alkaline Foods
Acid/alkaline refers to the type of residue left in the body after a food is metabolized. The key idea is to consume plenty of fruits and vegetables that are loaded with minerals to offset the demineralizing effects of consuming acid-forming foods like sugar, refined carbohydrates and animal proteins. This model helps explain why we like to put salt (contractive) on eggs (also contractive) because helps alkalize the natural acid-forming effects of eggs. Likewise, we enjoy the alkalizing effects of coffee when we eat a sugary dessert. The Acid/Alkaline Model add another dimension to unraveling the mysteries of sugar cravings.
|All Vegetables||Brown Rice||Wheat|
|Most Fruits (not dried)||Corn||Oats|
|Sprouted beans||Almonds||Strawberries, Cranberries|
|Sprouted seeds||Sunflower seeds||Dried fruits|
|Olive oil||Brazil nuts||Breads|
|Water-soaked almonds||Honey||Refined flour|
|Most Dried Beans and Peas||Refined Sugar|
|Unrefined Coconut Oil||Eggs, Butter|
- Annemarie Colbin, Food and Healing; Book of Whole Meals; Natural Gourmet. Paul Pitchford, Healing With Whole Foods.
- Elson Haas, Staying Healthy With the Seasons, Staying Healthy With Nutrition. John Garvy, Jr. The Five Phases of Food.
- Steve Gagne, The Energetics of Food.
- Daverick Leggett, Recipes for Self-Healing.
- Evelyn Roehl, Whole Food Facts.
Sugar-Free Desserts, Long on Natural Flavor, and Sweet Nutrients
Plum Applesauce (A Dessert)
- 2 lb. gala or golden delicious apples, quartered, seeded and left unpeeled 2 lb. red or black plums, quartered and pitted
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
Cook all ingredients in a heavy pot, covered, over low heat, stirring occasionally until fruit is very tender and falling apart–1-1-1/4 hours.
Force mixture through a medium mesh sieve using a spatula, discarding peels. Keeps covered and chilled one week. Source: Gourmet, September, 2006
- 2 lbs ripe fresh peaches
- 2 cups water or to cover
- 1 tsp vanilla Roasted nuts
Scrub peaches thoroughly and cut lengthwise, gently separating fruit from pit. Cut each half in 3 wedges. Place peaches in a heavy saucepan with water and vanilla, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer five minutes. Serve chilled or room temperature with sprinkling of roasted nuts.
- 6 apples
- Apple juice, or water; Sweetener, if desired.
Peel and core the apples and cut them into attractive chunks. Place in a saucepan and pour juice over them until it is about an inch deep in the pan. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered until the fruit is soft, stirring once or twice to insure against sticking. Check sweetness and add sugar or the sweetener you prefer, if it is needed.
Variations: 1. Raisins cooked with the fruit provide interesting texture and enough added sweetness for most apples. 2. Adding a stick of cinnamon gives bright flavor without the disagreeable catching in the throat that the ground spice may cause. 3. Ginger… add a long think slice of fresh gingerroot with, or instead of, the cinnamon, taking it out when the flavor seems strong enough. Both cinnamon and ginger parry sore throats and congestion.
Follow directions above, but use gingerroot, cinnamon stick, and lemon peel or dried cranberries.
Source: Laurel Robertson
Blueberry-Strawberry (or Raspberry) Tart
- 1 ¼ cup rolled oats
- ¼ cup almonds, ground
- ¼ cup walnuts, ground
- ¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour Pinch of salt
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- 2 T. cold-pressed vegetable oil
- 2 T. water
- 1 cup fresh blueberries
- 1 cup fresh strawberries or raspberries
- 1 cup apple or berry juice
- 1 T. kudzu (or ¼ cup arrowroot)
Preheat oven to 350 F. In a bowl, combine oats, ground nuts, flour, and salt.
Add 2 T. of maple syrup, oil, and water; mix well. With wet hands, press the mixture into an 8-by-8 pan. Bake 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
Wash and trim strawberries and cut in half. If using raspberries, rinse and use whole. Mix juice and kudzu together in a small pan until kudzu is dissolved. Add blueberries and remaining 2 T. of maple syrup; heat mixture, on medium heat, stirring constantly until thick and clear, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in strawberries or raspberries. Pour mixture on top of pre-baked oat-nut crust.
Allow to cool at room temperature or in the refrigerator before serving. Serves 9.
Source: Cynthia Liar.
Cashew-Almond Cream …Topping for Any Fruit Compote or Dessert
- 1 cup cashew pieces
- 1 cup almonds
- 2 T. maple syrup
- 1 t. vanilla extract
- ¼ to 1/3 cup water
- 2 T. mirin (sweet rice wine) (optional)
In a food processor or blender, grind the nuts until pulverized. With the machine running, add the maple syrup, vanilla, optional mirin and enough water to make a creamy consistency. (This cream has a tendency to thicken as it sits; add some water as needed to thin it out.). Makes 2 cups
Source: The Natural Gourmet
Pumpkin Tart with Pecan Crust… Delicious!
- 1 cup pecans
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour 1/8 t. sea salt
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup vegetable oil or choice (ghee)
- 1 ½ pounds winter squash, roasted and pureed (2 cups) 1 cup silken tofu
- 10 T. maple syrup
- 1 T. fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 T. finely grated orange zest
- ½ t. ground cinnamon
- ¼ t. nutmeg
- 1 t. vanilla extract
- ¼ cup arrowroot powder
- Adjust a rack to the middle shelf of the oven and preheat to 350 F. Lightly grease a 9” tart pan with a removable bottom.
- In a food processor, combine the pecans, flour, and salt and grind to a fine meal. Add the maple syrup and oil and pulse a few times to form dough.
- Transfer the dough to the tart pan. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the dough and spread it to fill the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove the plastic wrap and prick the dough all over with a fork. Bake for 10 minutes and remove from the oven to cool.
- Combine the pumpkin puree with the remaining ingredients in a food processor and puree until creamy smooth.
- Pour the filling into the tart shell and bake for 50 minutes.
- Cool on a rack, then refrigerate until chilled.
Note: To make a pumpkin puree, preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut a small pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds. Place cut side down in a baking pan and roast for 30-40 minutes until it pierces easily with a knife. Cool and scoop our flesh, puree until smooth.
Source: Peter Berley
- My first exposure to these concepts was through Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D, founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. She continues to offer a weekend intensive course, The Principles of Balance. For any who might be able to, I truly recommend it, www.naturalgourmet.com. Otherwise, I am also delighted to teach this. [↩]
- See Feb/Mar09 newsletter for discussion. [↩]
- Energetics associated with the 5 tastes…Sweet…Nourishes the spleen/stomach; Gathers energy; Tonifies; Moisturizes. Sour…Associated with the liver; Astringent; Binds. Salty…Nourishes the kidney/adrenals; Hydrates; Calms. Spicy…Affects the lungs; Moves energy upward; Opens and Disperses. Bitter…Associated with the heart; Downward draining; Dries and Clears [↩]
- Refining strips 99% of sugar’s Magnesium, 98% of its Zinc, and 93% of its Chromium and Manganese, 88% of Cobalt, and 83% of its Copper (Elson Haas). [↩]
- Enhanced and derived from the work of Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D. [↩]
- Mary McCarty, Sweet and Natural, 16. [↩]