Weaved throughout many of the ‘Ten Steps to a Balanced Diet’ is the importance of decreasing sugar intake. Sugar is a highly refined substance and as you already know, foods high in sugar will contain a lot of calories and soon leave us feeling hungry again and ready for more.
In its highly processed state it offers few if any health benefits, and over time excess sugar intake can lead to weight gain, diabetes and tooth decay so we’re all told we should reduce how much we consume. Trouble is, that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Here I honestly review a few sugar alternatives that you could consider using to wean yourself off the white stuff, looking at the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Made by bees using nectar from flowers, honey has been used by various empires through the ages, including the Greeks and Romans.
The good: Rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, there’s certainly more goodness in honey than in refined sugar. It’s been shown to contain iron, calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium which all keep your body functioning optimally.
Over the years it’s been proposed that it might treat wounds and infections, control allergies and manage gastrointestinal problems, although these claims need a lot more research to prove one way or the other. It has been shown in one study to ease night-time coughing in those with colds.
Drawbacks: Manuka honey is often purchased by people in an attempt to alleviate their latest bout of cold/flu. Whilst it may work as an antibacterial treatment for wounds, it’s cold-fighting properties are not yet proven, nor are the other claims made about it lowering cholesterol, treating diabetes and even cancer.
In fact, honey is around 80% sugar, half of it fructose, meaning whilst it’s probably slightly better than sugar, go easy on how much you use or you’ll be adding calories and increasing your insulin levels just as you would with refined sugar.
Pa what I hear you say? Panela….what’s that? Well it’s unrefined cane sugar, or certainly less refined than sugar. When sugarcane is cut down, it is boiled and the sap oozes out. This sap is then further refined to produce sugar, but Panela is just hardened blocks of this sap.
The good: As it is produced from the juice of the cane plant, it’s been shown to contain all of the vitamins and minerals found in the plant; everything form vitamin A to zinc, with plenty in between including calcium, copper, vitamins C and D, iron, potassium and polyphenols. It scores very highly on its levels of antioxidants too.
I use it myself, grating it into porridge to add some sweetness. It tastes good and a block lasts me a long time.
Drawbacks: It’s still over 70% sucrose, so the usual advice to consume it in moderation applies.
Carob is produced form the pods of the carob tree, found in the Middle East. They are ground and roasted to produce a chocolate-like substance.
The good: It is lower fat than cocoa powder, half as much in fact. It is also caffeine free, in fact it has no stimulants at all yet it still tastes like chocolate.
Drawbacks: Yep, you guessed it. It’s still high in sugars and therefore calories too.
A completely natural substance made from the sap of that maple tree, synonymous with Canada of course where the majority is produced.
The good: Another rich source of nutrients - magnesium, zinc, manganese and zinc to name a few. It’s also rich in phenols, powerful antioxidants more usually associated with grapes and berries, and wine by those who need to justify their slightly elevated intake! :-)
Drawbacks: Groundhog Day!! High in sugar and calories, say no more.
Ok so you know what this is. There are lots of different types of course; apricots, figs, dates, prunes, raisins and sultanas, pineapple and many more.
The good: Dried fruits are actually higher in fibre than fresh alternatives and fibre is essential in the diet to keep your digestive system healthy, fill you up and keep cholesterol levels low. Some dried fruits seem to be higher in nutrients than their freshly picked counterparts too, check out this interesting article on the Livestrong website to find out more.
The drawbacks: Dried fruit has lost all of its water and so may have a higher sugar content and higher glycaemic index. They’ve also been shown to have a laxative effect in some people so eating them before a run is not advised!
In summary, all of these may offer a little more nutritional benefit than plain old refined sugar, but as the first and arguably most important step of the balance 'ten steps to a healthy diet’ says, go easy on the quantity. As the old saying goes:
'Everything in moderation’
Or to put it another way, you need to find your balance. :-)