Let’s talk sugar. At this point, we all know that excess sugar isn’t good for your health. It’s linked to diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, obesity, and more – and we’re all looking for ways we can cut it back without swearing off dessert forever.
When you have a sweet tooth, eating healthy and avoiding excess sugar can seem impossible. The key to cutting it out is to have a plan of attack: learning alternatives that work for you to help you ditch the sugar while still feeling satisfied is the best way to make a habit out of it. That’s why I created the Nourish program, a 21-day healthy lifestyle program that guides you through creating a sugar strategy so you can establish healthier habits, rely less on sugar, and feel great.
In the end, feeling healthy and eating less sugar is the goal. And when it comes to alternatives to straight-up sugar, there are plenty of options out there. From honey and real maple syrup to coconut sugar and stevia — sweetening your food is possible without relying on the white stuff. Here’s the rundown on what to avoid and what might be a better option.
Sweeteners to Avoid
Artificial sweeteners don’t have calories or carbohydrates, so they won’t raise your blood sugar like real sugar will. However, some artificial sweeteners are super sweet – up to 500 times sweeter than regular sugar. Simply swapping sugar for artificial sweeteners doesn’t improve your sweet tooth at all, and can actually leave you craving things sweeter and sweeter the more you use them. Not to mention, there’s inconclusive evidence about exactly how safe they are. Either way, it’s best to steer clear.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup snuck itself into packaged foods all over the place. While it’s not something you can buy and drizzle on your oatmeal, it’s a sweetener you’ll want to keep an eye out for on ingredient lists in everything from salad dressings and tomato sauces to yogurt and bread. It’s higher in fructose than table sugar, which some research says is a health concern, but the key here is that it’s often added unnecessarily to processed foods and certainly isn’t any better for you than regular sugar.
Agave nectar has been touted as a healthier alternative to sugar because it’s lower on the glycemic index. This means it won’t raise your blood sugar quite as high as regular sugar will, but it still lands on the list to avoid because it’s super high in fructose. Fructose and glucose aren’t regulated in your body the same way, and there’s some evidence that too much fructose can actually raise triglyceride levels, leading to health issues like heart disease and metabolic syndrome. While it’s not the worst offender on the list, it’s definitely not a sweetener to seek out.
Sweeteners to Use in Moderation
Honey is still sugar, yes. It still has 15 calories per teaspoon and won’t provide you with much nutritional value. But here’s why it made the “moderation” list: It’s got a lot more flavor than regular ol’ sugar, so you can use it much more sparingly than sugar without feeling like you’re missing out. It’s also unprocessed, which I appreciate, and has some medicinal uses. Local raw honey can help you during allergy season and research shows honey is effective for soothing a sore throat and cough.
Much like honey, maple syrup is on the “moderation” list because it can be used in smaller amounts than regular sugar, without sacrificing flavor. Make sure to find pure (Grade A or B) maple syrup and not the fake stuff. The fake stuff will typically be labeled as “Pancake Syrup” and consists mainly of high in fructose corn syrup with some artificial maple flavoring added. Yuck!
Molasses is another form of syrup, but it’s super nutrient-rich. Molasses is basically the by-product of turning sugar cane into refined white sugar. All the nutrients that are in raw sugar cane get concentrated into the molasses while the refined white stuff gets separated. Blackstrap molasses is the most concentrated, so it has the most nutrients per serving. It has more iron than a serving of red meat in one tablespoon, plus potassium, calcium, selenium, and vitamin B-6. It’s also deep and flavorful, and a little bit bitter, so a little bit goes a long way.
Stevia is another type of non-nutritive sweetener. It’s extracted from stevia plant leaves and then concentrated, giving you sweetness without the chemicals or calories. Keep in mind that it’s still super sweet, so dumping it in your coffee won’t help you tackle your taste for sweetness, but it’s a better alternative to artificial sweeteners.
Sweeteners to Use
Date’s are nature’s candy: they taste just like caramel, but all the sweetness comes packaged alongside fiber and nutrients like potassium, phosphorus, and B vitamins. They’re great for recreating desserts without added sugar and perfect for sweetening up a bowl of oatmeal without drizzling in honey.
Fresh and Frozen Fruit
Fresh and frozen fruit is by far the best sweetener you can pick. The natural sugars come packaged with satisfying fiber and plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Sweeten smoothies with frozen fruit, mash a banana into your oatmeal, or stir berries into plain yogurt. However you use it, whole fruit is definitely your best bet when it comes to sweetening your food.
Cinnamon is a great natural sweetener and can also help regulate sugar metabolism. One study found that half a teaspoon of cinnamon per day significantly reduced blood sugar levels, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Cinnamon’s warm spicy flavor is great for sweetening coffee, oatmeal, yogurt, desserts, smoothies and more!