A question from my Canadian friend Heather: "What can I eat that isn’t sugar when I want sweets? Please don’t say fruit, it isn’t the same at all!"
Healthy alternatives to sweets, but not fruit because it’s not the same thing…okay, got it.
So, let’s dissect this. First up, what are we talking about when we say sweets, and why are sweets something you do or do not want to eat?
What are sweets (Americans insert the word “candy”)?
Right, let’s get to business. What’s your poison people? Jelly Babies, Chewits, wine gums, Squashies, Starburst, Foxes glacier mints, humbugs, jelly tots, Haribo, cola bottles, giant strawberries, bonbons, lemon fizzes, Parma Violets. Okay, scratch the Parma Violets…what weirdo eats them?
What it comes down to, is this: sugar, and often a whole bunch of unpronounceable stuff and some numbers, possibly headed up by the letter E.
Question: Would you give that to your baby? If not, why not? Annnd that’s possibly why sweets are not something you want to consume every day if health is your goal. Yes, your body can handle the odd bonbon but a little and often over time add up to large consequences, and Type II Diabetes is a large consequence. That little and often also works for good habits, by the way; just ask your teeth. A little brushing twice a day adds up to some serious benefits for those nashers.
Let’s talk about the sugar aspect though, because sugar is natural, it comes from a plant, right? Everything has its job. If you are an endurance athlete and you’re pumping out the kilometers for over 60 minutes, then sugar has an important place in your performance. 5 or 6 Jelly Babies will replace glycogen levels in your muscles quickly and provide the body with the energy it needs.
Sugar is found in fruit and vegetables and milk and lots of natural foodstuffs too. But I get it, a glass of milk is not what you’re craving is it?
So, if you’re not enduring a marathon, and you’re at home or at work, or driving in your car, and you crave a little dip into the sweet jar, what’s that about? Here are some words, which for fun I’ll let you put into a sentence of your own:
Memory, Pleasure, Reward
Seriously, if you follow a healthy diet, drink enough water, and get a good night’s sleep, then physically your body won’t crave sweets.
That 4 pm need for something sweet is often a signal that your insulin levels are a bit messed up. To combat that have a look at what you’ve eaten in the day. Have you eaten enough? Did you have enough carbohydrates at lunch? Low GI (Glycaemic Index) carbohydrates are ideal for avoiding sugar cravings because they keep your insulin levels balanced for longer. Staying hydrated is also important. EVERYTHING works better in your body when you are properly hydrated. And you know what else makes your body work better? Sleep. So, if you happen to be the mother of a tiny baby, cut yourself some slack. Tiredness is a killer. Try to eat for sustained energy, which is those low GI carbs; but be kind to yourself and ditch the guilt. If you need a little giant strawberry to get you through the afternoon, then congratulate yourself that it’s not crack cocaine.
So that’s the physical aspect to it all. The mental game is a whole other thing.
Ultimately, there are no real alternatives to sweets because they have been deliberately engineered by our own kind to hijack your brain and hit you hard with that whole pleasure/reward/memory habit-forming addiction thing. As any decent smoker will tell you, there are no real alternatives to cigarettes. An alcoholic is not going to love you for a no-alcohol beer. And, to take it further, ask your local crack addict about alternatives. And I can tell you right now, that if anybody took away my morning cup of coffee, and replaced with some kind of decaffeinated hell, it would not look pretty. What can I say? Everyone has their thing.
However, smokers give up cigarettes, alcoholics dry out, and crack addicts get clean. So you, my friend, can ease up on that sweets thing, eaaazy. There are foods that you can substitute to wean you off the emotional attachment to sweets. Sugar-free gum is an example. I use Xylitol in baking instead of refined sugar. It’s from a plant, it’s great for teeth and it is lower GI. If you’re a baker, then make yourself a batch of something sweet to indulge in. I kid you not, chickpea brownies are a winner. Follow my “Nutritious Life” board on Pinterest for ideas.
Aim for progress, not perfection. Rather than going cold turkey, start by noticing how many sweets you actually have in a week and when you have them. Are Werther’s Originals a thing when you’re driving? Has that Skittles Jar loitering in your meetings become a vehicle to get you through the AOB? Do Chewits hang out on your kitchen work surface ready to greet you as you walk in the door? Just being mindful of when and how many sweets you have is a good start because then you can work out a plan to reduce your sweets consumption:
*Instead of chowing down mindlessly, give yourself a set number you want to have. Eat them and then DONE.
*Try to remove associations. Disconnect driving with Werther’s. Connect it to a hot drink instead or singing or breathing exercises.
*Remove sweets from your view. Don’t keep them on your desk, don’t keep them hanging on the sideboard. Guaranteed, if you see them, you’ll want one (ten). Take away the cue from your environment.
Next, consider, do you REALLY like sweets? Truly? Or have you just gotten into a habit of them? Yes, in the moment you pop one in your mouth after another and “sooo good…want more!” but how do you feel when they’re all gone? Bit sickly, aren’t they? Try to remember THAT feeling next time you assume you want sweets. On the flip side of that, Ms. Anti-Fruit, try eating a gorgeous strawberry as if you had NEVER had one before. Eat it slowly, really think about the texture, the taste. This is not “meeh, fruit blah blah,” as you have trained yourself to think. This is a taste explosion that is a treat for your body and your soul!
Another thing to think about; be careful with your language. Don’t mope about crushed by the fact you can’t have sweets…you can have sweets but you’re choosing not to right now because they’re not gonna get you to where you want to be. Choose your long-term goals over your short term wants. Post dinner, when you think you need sweets (trust me you don’t), have some popcorn, or some monkey nuts, try out some pistachios even. They’re snacks that are not gone in seconds and they won’t mess with your insulin before bed. A top tip is to brush your teeth at the first sign of a craving. Try it. Trust me, you will not want cola bottles once you’ve brushed your teeth, nor much else.
I also want to add that there is a ridiculous amount of ingredients that are all essentially, in one way or another, SUGAR. I’m not saying they’re bad or good, I’m just making you aware people: beet sugar, molasses, brown sugar, syrup, cane juice, cane sugar, caramel, carob syrup, castor sugar, coconut sugar, confectioners’ sugar, date sugar, demerara sugar, evaporated cane juice, Florida crystals, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, golden syrup, grape sugar, honey, icing sugar, invert sugar, maple syrup, molasses, panela sugar, raw sugar, refiner’s syrup, sorghum syrup, sucanat, treacle, turbinado sugar, yellow sugar, barley malt, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrin, dextrose, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, glucose, glucose solids, lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltose, rice syrup, crystalline fructose, fructose, galactose. (Listed with thanks to Healthline who recorded this list here.)
What is more helpful, is to look at the food label and scan down the per 100g column. If there is less than 5g of sugar per 100g then crack on. If it’s between 5g and 15g, then yeah, it’s okay. If it’s more than 15g then this will not help you to move closer to your health goal.
And remember…whatever else…you really are sweet enough already.