This article first appeared in print in the September 2019 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Humans love sugar. It’s a central, tasty part of our celebrations, gatherings, and even song lyrics. Go ahead, I bet you can think of a few tunes right now. To question its use seems uncandy. Yet it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. Consumption of processed carbohydrates and refined sugars trigger the growth of harmful gut bacteria, contribute to impaired immune function and chronic inflammation, increase cardiovascular disease risk factors, impair brain function, and can even contribute to cancer. Yikes, with that laundry list, why do our tongues still shout, ‘pour some sugar on me!!’?
Why sugar is addictive
Sugar activates the dopamine reward circuit in the brain, producing feelings of pleasure and euphoria that drive us to seek it repeatedly. Sugar further excites by stimulating the release of the body’s innate pain-relieving opioids. Repetitively stimulating this system may essentially rewire the brain, leading to addiction. This inclination toward sugar addiction can be attributed to the evolutionary mismatch we subsist within. Our drive to find highly palatable, densely caloric food sources may have kept us alive in our hunter-gatherer days. The consumption of seasonal high-sugar fruits would have promoted body fat storage, enabling us to survive winter and famine. Unfortunately, in our modern world, refined, highly processed, and sugary foods are always within minutes or steps, and all foods are available year-round.
Break up with processed sugars
Enjoy complex carbohydrates instead — these can be found in whole foods like vegetables, grains, and in-season fresh fruit. In their whole food form, these foods contain fibre, water, and a balance of micronutrients which contribute to health and slow the breakdown and absorption of the natural sugars they contain.
Reunite with healthy fats
Glorious fat, with the undeserved bad rap. Healthy fats are vital for brain and nervous system health, hormone regulation, immune function, temperature regulation, healthy skin and hair, energy, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and even satiety/curbing sugar cravings. Skip the inflammatory vegetable oils. Healthy options include ghee, grass-fed butter, extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, avocado oil, nuts and seeds, avocados, grass-fed meats, and organic free range eggs. When a processed-sugar craving hits, try a scoop of fudgy, naturally sweet coconut butter.
Pair with protein
Like all aspects of diet, optimal protein intake is individual and ever changing. We do know that protein has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar; pairing carbohydrates with protein can help keep blood sugar stable. Examples include apple slices with nut butter, adding hemp hearts to smoothies, or topping leafy greens with chicken or chickpeas.
Breakfast can be a game changer when it comes to regulating blood sugar, mood, energy levels, and cravings. Upon rising, drink a few glasses of water. Once hungry, aim to have a savoury breakfast that contains fibre, substantial protein, and sufficient fats. Examples include chopped kale and eggs fried in ghee, or two eggs, a banana, and a scoop of nut butter, fried in ghee to make pancakes, or chia pudding made with hemp hearts, berries, and coconut milk. Skip the cereal, toast, or other baked goods — these refined morning carbs spike blood sugar and set you up for blood sugar and mood swings, along with cravings, throughout the day.
Think outside the box
The majority of processed food is inflammatory, devoid of nutrients, and contains various forms of highly processed sugars, or neurotoxic artificial sweeteners. Making simple snacks and treats at home, utilizing whole foods and natural sweeteners, allows you to control the ingredients and amount of natural sugars and others ingredients going into your food, while still enjoying your birthday cake!
Tune your taste buds
After eliminating concentrated sugars, you may begin to find fresh, crisp apples taste incredible, like candy, even. Berries burst in your mouth, sunbathing on your tongue. Mmmm! This phenomenon always one to earn back their refined ‘buds by eliminating processed, overly sweetened foods, and rediscovering the naturally sweet, marvelous variety of in-season whole fruits and vegetables. One may even begin to appreciate bitter flavours more — a great boon as bitter foods such as leafy greens, grated beets, lemon, and ginger help stimulate digestive secretions. When it comes to flavour and immunity, studies show that excess sweet activation leads to a weak immune response, while those with active bitter receptors have a significantly greater immune response.
Cinnamon has been used for over 4,000 years, was highly valued in Egypt, and originally introduced to Middle Eastern meat dishes as a preservative. Cinnamon can lower blood sugar levels and improve sensitivity to insulin, which helps transport sugar from the bloodstream to the tissues in order to keep blood sugar levels balanced. Cinnamon has the seventh highest antioxidant score of any herb on the planet, is antimicrobial, anti-fungal, smells lovely, and is darn tasty! Try adding it to your coffee, smoothie, dessert, or even savoury middle-eastern-style dishes.
Rest and relax
Insufficient sleep increases hunger and appetite, and compromises impulse control within the brain, increasing food consumption, decreasing feelings of satiety, and increasing cravings for sugar and other stimulants. In turn, high carbohydrate diets can make it harder to fall asleep and sleep soundly, so the cycle can continue if we don’t prioritize sleep. Meanwhile, stress management is integral for balancing blood sugar, as stress-hormone cortisol has an inverse relationship with insulin — meaning stress wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels, just as high sugar intake causes a spike in stress hormones. All this equates to prioritizing sleep and breath as integral steps for blood sugar management.
Finally, be sweet with yourself. If you find yourself in a sugar low, thank your incredible body for connecting what you ate to how you feel, and look forward to using that knowingness at your next opportunity.