Refined carbohydrates and junk food contain a large amount of simple carbohydrates, which are released into the blood very quickly and cause a quick and large insulin spike. Insulin is required to take glucose from our blood and put it into our cells so that they can utilize it. It takes longer for this spike to decrease than when eating complex carbohydrates (and especially fibre, protein, fats). The insulin remains raised after eating but most of the glucose is inside the cells, so then one becomes hypoglycemic, which means low blood glucose. When one has low blood glucose, the body tells the brain "I'm hungry!", and the quickest fix for that is simple carbohydrates since they would satisfy the insulin quickest since they are so readily released. This creates a vicious cycle of simple carbohydrate ingestion leading to more simple carbohydrate ingestion. So halt the cycle! Do so by reducing your simple carbohydrate consumption.
Furthermore, sugar is damaging, it paralyzes your immune system, and it feeds bacteria. Also, excessive sugar consumption leads to sugar being converted to fat.
When we combine simple carbs with more fibre, fat, and protein, this allows the glucose to be released slower, and have a more stable insulin response. Also, if you choose sweet sources that contain more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, then the detrimental effects of sugar are at least partially negated.
Before we begin, a word on dates: They are high in sugar, ringing in at 64% sugar. But they are also high in fiber, as well as many nutrients. So their glycemic load (how much sugar they contain X how that sugar affects our blood glucose) is moderate. In conclusion, they are better than a lot of fruits, and they are certainly better than refined sugar, so I am on board with using them in moderation.
Now, enter: Top 10 Healthy Sweet Treats!
1. Fruits- whole fruits (i.e. not juices) contain sugar, but they're also full of amazing nutrients and antioxidants to help process that sugar and maintain good health, plus fibre to slow the absorption of glucose. Some fruits are higher in sugar than others. Opt for cherries, berries, apples, pears, peaches, and grapefruit, since they have the lowest glycemic loads. Moderate your consumption of bananas, mango and pineapple, since they have the some of the highest glycemic loads. Melons have high glycemic indexes (how the food affects our blood sugar), but they do not contain much of the carbohydrate since they're mostly water, so their glycemic load is therefore lower.
2. Dark chocolate (over 70% cocoa), or cacao nibs/beans (100% cacao)- full of amazing antioxidants- higher the cacao content the better! Cacao nibs are actually extremely bitter, so you can blend these with dates, bananas, or other fruit to level it out with natural sugars.
3. Cardamom-Banana "Ice Cream"- see my recipe here!
4. Popsicles- there are endless popsicle options- popsicles of fruit teas, chai, green tea with honey, juice (not ideal because lacking fibre) or pureed fruit. Or yogurt pops- blend yogurt (can use goat's milk yogurt or coconut yogurt etc. if lactose-intolerant) with your favourite fruits/powders and enjoy as is or freeze in disposable cups/molds with a popsicle stick. Do keep in mind that frozen food loses some of its flavour, so you will need to make the liquid stronger flavoured than you'd drink, enhance the flavour as much as possible (i.e. double the amount of tea that you'd normally steep).
5. Chia Seed Pudding- This is especially fantastic because chia seeds are full of fibre, protein, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and a great selection of nutrients. When chia contacts water, it creates a smooth gel, so using the ratio 1 cup liquid:3 tbsp chia seeds, you can make any liquid (tea, almond/soy/rice/cow's milk, etc) into a pudding!
6. Avocado pudding- 1/2 avocado, 1-2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 tsp raw honey, 1 tsp nut butter, pinch of salt, dark chocolate chips (optional).
Mash up avocado and add the other ingredients! Easy as pie! (Wait, much easier than pie...). From http://paleomg.com/5-ingredient-avocado-pudding/. Avocado is full of healthy fats and very low in carbohydrates which will help stabilize blood sugar, and the cacao is full of antioxidants, as noted previously.
7. Egg Crepes- Simply mix one egg with 1 tbsp water and stir with a fork until uniform (and not too frothy). Heat skillet/crepe pan on medium heat. When hot, remove and wipe pan with oil-soaked paper towel. Return pan to heat for 5 seconds, then put 2 tbsp "batter" on pan. Cook ~2 mins or until edges lift. Flip and cook 1 more minute. From http://simplygluten-free.com/blog/2012/05/gluten-free-egg-crepes.html.
Get creative- coat with fruits, nut butters, unsweetened cocoa powder. Eggs are a great source of complete protein and contain almost no carbohydrates, thus making an amazing crepe alternative. For more of the benefits of eggs, see my post here.
8. Nut Butter "Larabar" Recipe- 1c. pitted Medjool dates, 1/2c. nut butter (all natural).
Combines dates and nut butter in food processor, puree until it starts to stick together. Add water if necessary. Remove from food processor and squeeze into one big lump. Mash down on cutting board or sheet of wax paper into one even rectangle. Slice into bars. Store in fridge if possible (room temp is acceptable, also). From http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/07/01/recipe-homemade-larabars-4-ways-including-nut-free/. Nuts are high in healthy fats, protein, and nutrients, plus they are very low in carbohydrates.
9. Coconut Date Rolls- 1c. almonds, 1c. chopped coconut, 1 lb pitted dates.
Put almonds and dates into food processor and whir until they form a paste. Remove from food processor and form 2" logs/balls/discs (whatever shape you'd like). Then coat in the chopped coconut and chill. Store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. From http://www.food.com/recipe/coconut-date-rolls-332742. (Personally, I can't be bothered to form logs, so I just flatten the whole load on a pan then cut after chilled. I also add cacao nibs, flaxseeds, chia, and hemp seeds to increase the health! This is the featured photo.)
10. Chai latte- use rice/almond/soy milk if lactose intolerant. Delicious without sweetener, but you can add a small amount of natural vanilla extract/honey/stevia if that doesn't suit your fancy. [Also relevant is: Whipped Cream Substitute: Chill a can of coconut milk in fridge for a couple hours, open and scoop off cream (use the remaining water for something else). Whip the cream part, add a little vanilla or maple syrup if you wish to sweeten it.]
- Adding cinnamon to items is a great way to sweeten them with zero sugar, and its constituents can also aid the insulin response in some. Stevia comes from the herb Stevia rebaudiana and is a great natural, sugar-free sweetener. Vanilla extract is another great way to sweeten items- ensure that it is not artificial extract.
- You can easily add protein powders to sweets to boost their protein content and increase satiety and level out the insulin response.
- Sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, raw cane sugar are better than refined sugar because they still retain their nutrients along with the sugar, but they are still mostly sugar, so use sparingly. The less sweetener you use, the less you will ultimately crave.
So this is the first step in consuming less refined carbohydrates, the ultimate goal being to simply lower consumption of sweet things in general. If you have a serious sweets addiction, I would also encourage you to consider what the sweets provide for you- are you craving sweetness or love in your life? Does it provide a comfort from some pain or stress? When you reach for the sweets, ask yourself if there's a void you're trying to fill. I would also love to help you on that exploration, so feel free to contact me here.
Enjoy, and feel free to post your favourite healthy sweet treats!