How to Live the Sweet Life Without Refined Sugar
What does it mean to eat a sugar-free, gluten-free diet? Being “sugar free” is a relatively new concept, and how the diet works in each person’s life is unique.
There are natural sugars in fruits and vegetables, and our bodies actually need certain sugars to survive. However, eliminating or greatly reducing refined sugars can significantly benefit health and longevity.
Generally speaking, refined sugar includes processed white sugar made from sugarcane or sugar beets. It also includes brown sugar, which is white sugar coated with molasses. Because refined sugar is highly processed, our bodies absorb and process it almost immediately. When too much sugar is consumed, we experience a “sugar high” and soon after comes the blood sugar crash.
Why avoid refined sugar?
Type I, or insulin-dependent, diabetes occurs at an estimated rate of 5 to 10 percent in the celiac population compared to 0.5 percent in the general population. Researchers have determined that there is a causal genetic link between the two diseases. Both are autoimmune disorders, which tend to occur in pairs or clusters.
Controlling Type I diabetes on a gluten-free diet poses particular challenges. Many processed gluten-free foods have a higher amount of added sugar and starch to help improve taste and compensate for the absence of gluten. Both are problematic for diabetics who need to control blood sugar.
There are a myriad of other health problems that are linked to excess sugar in the diet, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and hypoglycemia. More recently, studies have been published suggesting that cancer, hypertension and heart disease are linked to excess sugar.
Candida, a yeast overgrowth, is another condition that requires avoiding refined sugar. Hashimoto’s Disease and Lyme Disease are often improved with a dietary decrease in sugar intake. Inflammation in the body can be caused by sugar’s high glycemic index, a system representing how quickly and how high a food can increase blood sugar levels, and the resulting insulin response. The higher the number is on the glycemic index, the more severely blood sugar rises.
Some find that sugar has addictive qualities. A recent article in The American Society of Addiction Medicine found that rats exhibited addictive behaviors and brain chemistry when fed refined sugar. While this theory has not been tested on humans, sugar addiction and toxicity has been a hot topic in the media.
Sugar doesn’t register on a standard food allergy test; however, many people say they notice a marked difference in energy, mental clarity, mood stability and health once their sugar intake has decreased.
The fact is that our bodies break down all food into glucose, a simple sugar also referred to as blood sugar. It’s necessary for our survival. What isn’t necessary, though, is the 130 pounds of excess sugars Americans are consuming yearly.
Where sugar is found
Sugar is nearly everywhere, not just dessert. Food manufacturers use it to enhance the flavors of spice mixes, salad dressings, yogurts, dairy-free beverages, sodas, snack foods, soups, and even stocks and broths.
Reading labels is the key to finding out how much sugar is in a food if you are interested in cutting sugar consumption. Some words that indicate sugar on ingredient lists include evaporated cane juice, sucrose, turbinado sugar, raw sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dehydrated cane juice and corn sweetener.
While some people choose to not consume any processed foods with sugar in the ingredient list, others find that if sugar is listed fifth or lower, the overall amount of added sugar is not large enough to cause problems.
Alternatives to refined sugar
There are so many different unrefined, or less-refined, alternatives to white sugar that it can be confusing. Using them in your kitchen successfully requires an understanding of each product.
Coconut palm sugar is a granulated sweetener made from the sap of the coconut tree. It has a low glycemic index of 35, which has a slower and less severe impact on blood sugar, and also contains important nutrients including potassium, magnesium, zinc and calcium. It is easier to bake with than liquid alternatives because it can generally be substituted one to one; however, its flavor is more intense and similar to brown sugar. Since the flavor is stronger than white sugar, starting with 25 percent less coconut palm sugar often yields good results. Coconut palm sugar will also caramelize in the oven, so it’s perfect for cookies and brownies.
Liquid alternatives include honey, molasses, agave nectar, raw coconut nectar, yacon syrup, maple syrup and brown rice syrup that does not contain barley malt and is gluten free. When using a liquid sweetener, it’s necessary to reduce the liquid in the recipe by the amount you’ve added. For example, if you use 1/2 cup of honey instead of white sugar, you’ll need to reduce other liquid in the recipe by 1/2 cup. It’s not a solid rule but instead a good starting point when testing a recipe.
Fruit purees, such as bananas and applesauce, are natural ways to add sweetness to baked goods. They also add moisture, which is a benefit to often dry gluten-free baked goods.
Stevia, derived from an herb, and lo han guo, derived from a Chinese fruit, are both hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, have a negligible caloric value, do not impact blood sugar and are naturally gluten free. Due to their intense sweetness, they must be used in very small amounts. When used in baking, they typically boost the sweetness alongside another unrefined sugar. Both sweeteners have been used safely for hundreds of years in other countries but are still relatively new to the United States, where there is some controversy about their impact on health.
Sugar alcohols have zero calories and include xylitol, erythritol, mannitol and sorbitol. Xylitol and sorbitol are commonly seen in “no sugar added” products such as chocolates, cough syrups and ice cream. If consumed in large amounts, they can cause digestive distress. Erythritol is often referred to as the easiest of all the sugar alcohols to digest.
Artificial sweeteners include sucralose, aspartame and saccharin. There is a trend toward more natural forms of refined sugar substitutes, though some diabetics and people with blood sugar problems find artificial sweeteners are suitable for their needs.
Striking a healthy balance
Replacing a diet high in refined sugar with just as much unrefined sugar is not the solution. Too much unrefined sugar is not good for our bodies either. However, many people do find that overeating food made with unrefined sugar is much more difficult than with white sugar because our bodies process unrefined sugar much more slowly. That leads to a feeling of being satisfied more quickly.
The main idea behind a refined sugar-free diet is to reduce the overall added sweeteners consumed. This means increasing the whole, unrefined gluten-free foods used in your cooking and baking, and decreasing processed foods. It also means recalibrating your palate and having desserts and sweets as a treat, not as part of every meal.
Many people on a refined sugar-free diet find creative solutions to replacing mainstream foods. For example, instead of using maple syrup on pancakes and waffles, a puree of fresh berries with just a hint of sweetener can be used. Other times the amount of sweetener used when baking muffins or cakes can be reduced and pureed fruit or stevia can be used to bump up the flavor.
Whether you decide to eliminate refined sugar altogether or just reduce your intake, it’s important to build your diet on whole, unrefined foods and curb your sweet cravings with natural foods like fruits and sweeter vegetables, such as sweet potatoes. Dessert should be an occasional treat, not a dietary staple.
Amy Green has been living gluten-and refined-sugar free since February 2004. She is the founder of SimplySugarAndGlutenFree.com and author of Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free: 180 Easy & Delicious Recipes You Can Make in 20 Minutes or Less.