Welcome to our 2018 Wellness Guide, a series of stories we're running this January to help you own your health and happiness this year—all curated with the knowledge that wellness is never one-size-fits-all. Check back all month for expert-led guides on tackling your goals, from choosing the best workout for your personality to staying mindful even when your schedule is absolutely insane.
Ideally, you might consider quitting sugar in all forms, at least for a time. Even going just 30 days without the stuff can help reset your hormones and blood sugar, clear up your skin, and curb the addiction overall. (I did it last year, and within days, I suddenly had a very different idea of what I considered "sweet.")
"Unfortunately, sugar is sugar," says Mia Rigden, nutrition expert, holistic health coach, and founder of The Rasa Life. "Instead of substituting one sugar for another, the best strategy is to train your body to crave less of it." Rigden offers a 21-day challenge wherein she encourages clients to ditch sugar altogether and substitute with fruit and stevia.
But we're also big believers in making smart decisions while still indulging what you crave, which is why we asked Rigden for her POV on some of the healthier alternatives to white sugar. "To satisfying my sweet tooth, I look for sugars that give you more than just a sweet taste," she says—that means sweeteners with more of a nutritional boost, from antioxidants to fiber. From honey to maple syrup, she ranks her favorites below.
But first, a note on "bad" sugar
If you really want to go cold turkey on white sugar, it's time to start reading labels if you aren't already: It's hiding in everything from salad dressings to salsa. Look for "cane sugar" and try to avoid it as much as possible—even if it's dubbed "natural" or "organic," it's still white sugar—since even a small amount can throw your hormones and blood sugar out of whack.
The same goes for alcohol. There's a reason Dry January is such a popular concept: Our bodies feel really good when we abstain, and not just because we're skipping out on Sunday morning hangovers. Alcohol's sugar content tends to throw our insulin production into overdrive, which tells the body to store the excess glucose as fat. This also makes us crave more sugar. Pair that with poor decision-making, and we're stuck in a vicious cycle.
A glass of wine might be your preferred method of winding down from a tough day at the office, but it's also worth knowing why you might be hankering for something sweet after a few sips. With that in mind, perhaps it's worth indulging with one of the healthier sugar alternatives listed below.
The good: If you're opting for a juice made with natural ingredients and without any added sugars—or better yet, a vegetable blend—then you're likely getting your fill of vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
The bad: However, we've said it before, and we'll say it again: Green juices are notoriously high in sugar, even if it's sourced solely from fruit. That's because most juices require several servings of fruit to fill an entire cup—and contain minimal fiber to counteract the carbohydrate load. "Apple juice, for example—even when mixed with kale juice—raises your blood sugar so much more than the whole apple and will having you cravings sugar and carb-rich foods like bread and pasta all day," says Rigden.
In other words, it might seem virtuous to knock back a kale-laced beverage, but you'll likely cause a spike in your blood sugar at the same. "When your blood sugar has a quick spike, it will crash just as low, leaving your body craving more sugar to get those blood sugar levels back up," Rigden adds. "It's a vicious and highly addictive cycle."
The verdict: Either opt for a green juice with a much higher veggie-to-fruit ratio or, better yet, go for a smoothie to ensure you're getting some fiber (and potentially fat and protein) as well.
The good: "Honey is said to be slightly easier to digest than cane sugar because the sugar is already partially broken down by the bees," says Rigden. "It also has other health benefits, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Honey provides allergy relief and is a cough suppressant."
The bad: One teaspoon of honey contains 23 calories and 6 grams of sugar compared to white sugar's 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar. Honey does contain less fructose and glucose than sugar but enough to still cause an insulin spike (especially if you overdo it).
The verdict: In order to get the most nutritional bang for your buck, look for "raw" and organic honey, which tend to be less processed and contain more natural minerals. And you'll still want to use it in moderation. Honey is actually denser and sweeter than sugar, so you can use even less of it. (Start with half a teaspoon.)
The good: "Coconut sugar contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber that is good for your digestive system and slows glucose absorption," says Rigden. "It is is also full of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients." It's considered a low-glycemic sweetener, as well, meaning it has less of a drastic impact on your blood sugar than regular sugar. And bakers, take note: Unlike the other alternatives listed here, coconut sugar can be subbed one-for-one with white sugar.
The bad: Coconut sugar is actually composed largely of table sugar—a little more than 75%, according to research. Inulin and other minerals make up that other 25%, but that fructose and glucose content can still mess with your insulin and hunger levels.
The verdict: Use it in moderation as you would regular sugar, but know that you are getting an additional nutritional boost.
The good: "Dates are loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals," says Rigden—that includes calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium. "They are relatively low on the glycemic index, which means that they spike your blood sugar less than refined sugars," she adds.
The bad: Dates—particularly those of the extra tasty Medjool variety—are still naturally quite high in carbohydrates, clocking in 66 calories and 16 grams of sugar per tiny fruit.
The verdict: Dates are still a solid bet in the grand scheme of sugar alternatives because of their low-glycemic status. "It's extremely important to consider how you consume your sugar," says Rigden. "Eating sugar alongside fiber, fat, and protein can help mitigate blood sugar spikes." Dates contain lots of fiber and trace amounts of protein, and as for whetting your sweet tooth, they're not nicknamed "nature's candy" for nothing.
The good: It's one of the most natural, unrefined sources of sugar out there. "It also has a lot of antioxidants, including inflammation-fighting polyphenols," says Rigden. Hot tip: "The darker the syrup, the more antioxidants it contains," she adds.
Maple syrup also contains less overall sugar than honey does and, more specifically, less fructose (that's the sugar compound that can seriously mess with your liver and heart health). Plus, it contains trace amounts of fat, which, as mentioned, can help assuage blood sugar spikes.
The bad: Maple syrup might contain less sugar than honey, but it also contains fewer vitamins—and its sugar content isn't exactly insignificant. One teaspoon of maple syrup contains 17 calories and 4 grams of sugar, and since it isn't as sweet as honey, you might be inclined to use a little more.
The verdict: If you're down with its distinctive flavor, maple syrup is a great substitute for regular sugar or even honey if you're trying to cut back on your fructose load.
The good: Rigden's preferred sugar alternative is distinctive because it doesn't contain any sugar—or calories, for that matter. "I'm a big fan of stevia," she says. "If you ever get a chance to try a real stevia leaf, it will blow your mind!" Those leaves are about 40 times sweeter than sugar, and the powdered form can be up 300 times sweeter—which means that a little goes a very, very long way.
The bad: Stevia itself doesn't spike your blood sugar, but its excessive sweetness can still get you into trouble. "Even though it doesn't have any calories, your taste buds cue your body that calories are coming, and when they don't, it could make you want to eat more," says Rigden. "Everything in moderation."
The verdict: It's a great option, especially in the realm of calorie-free sweeteners. Even other "natural" sweeteners on the market like xylitol tend to cause gas and other digestive issues. But it's also not immune to unhealthy additives. "You need to make sure to get unbleached stevia, as there are some products out there that are not as pure," says Rigden.
If you're really looking to dial down your sweet tooth, Rigden suggests skipping sugar substitutes altogether and finding flavor from other sources. "Coconut and cinnamon both have a sweet taste, without any sugar," she says. " I especially love coconut butter in smoothies (or by the spoonful) for its natural sweetness and heavy dose of healthy fats. Cinnamon regulates blood sugar levels, so it's a great way to offset sweeter foods (like fruit) or to add to smoothies or your morning brew—coffee or matcha—in place of sugar."
Much of this all comes down to personal preference, which is why it's up to you to experiment and figure out what alternative works best for you.
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