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Nutrition 911, Part Four
5 Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

by Steve Edwards
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Decadent Dessert

Welcome to Part IV of our oh-so-basic nutrition class designed to give you an overview of basic nutrition and make healthy eating much simpler. In Part I, we addressed the terms organic, grass-fed, free-range, and farm-raised. Part II analyzed the ever-popular "fat-free" and trendy "low-carb" slogans. In Part III, we took the CliffsNotes approach to reading food labels. Now it's time for dessert. Let's discuss some options for giving in to your sweet tooth.

Today's lesson will be broken into three parts. First, we'll look at sugar and why you want to limit the amount you eat. Next, we'll quickly examine artificial sweeteners. Finally, we'll talk about healthy ways to curb your cravings.

Granulated SugarSugar
Remember, this class is the ultra basics, so instead of using words like saccharide and galactose, let's just say that sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrates. It's sweet, yummy, and easy to crave. In nature, it's found in plants. As you recall from Part 1, plants have fiber and this minimizes sugar's impact on your system by causing it to be digested slowly. Carbohydrates, whether from potatoes, lettuce, or Oreos, all break down into sugars in your body, and you use these sugars as fuel when you do stuff. So, if done right, eating carbohydrates is a good thing, especially when you're active.

Refined sugar, the white grainy stuff you'll find in gummy bears, chocolate, Coke, and most desserts, is sugar minus the fiber that surrounded it in nature. What you're left with is a sweet but highly caloric food that your body absorbs very rapidly, causing a "sugar rush." This "rush" is a temporary imbalance in your system that your body tries to regulate—a spike of energy followed by a lull.

CandyBut your body hates the lull, so to bring you back up, it'll crave, you guessed it, more sugar. It's an ugly cycle considering refined sugar's only nutritional value is similar to a nitrous injection in a race cara quick burst of energy that burns right out. This might be a good thing if you're in a drag race (or, in human terms, if you need an extra burst of energy in a workout), but it's a bad thing any other time because if you don't put that excess sugar to use, it gets stored as fat.

Bottom line: Refined sugar is okay for sports performance (while you are skiing, bicycling, running, and so on), but bad at all other times. Therefore, straight sugar consumption should be limited.

Now you're probably wondering, "So the best time to eat gummy bears would be during a marathon instead of at night in front of the TV?" The answer is yes, absolutely.

And now you're probably thinking, "But I want dessert after dinner!"

Right, we all do. Something sweet after a meal, while habitual, is pretty darn ingrained in our society. So now that we understand that sugar should be limited, let's look at some ways to do it.

Artificial Sweeteners
Essentially, there are a bunch of different artificial sweeteners to choose from. Most are made of various chemical reactions that your taste buds think are sweet but aren't used by your body and, hence, have zero calories.

There are also some, called sugar alcohols, which have fewer calories than regular sugar because they've been combined with an artificial fiber that you can't digest. These have "tol" at the end of their names, like "xylitol."

One, Stevia or "sweet leaf," is natural. It's basically a, well, sweet leaf that you can chew on or that we can grind into a powder, like sugar.

Now you might be thinking, "This all sounds great! What's the catch?"

The catch is that they may not be safe. The FDA has approved some—but given their track record lately (Vioxx, etc.), we can easily—and should—be a bit skeptical. With a cursory search of the Internet, you can find both pro and con studies of each alternative sweetener. The FDA is highly influenced by lobbyists and does not accept all viable studies, meaning that you might want more than FDA approval before blindly trusting what you put into your body.

So let's use some logic to try to assess how best to choose a sweetener. By adding two and two together, we should be able stack the odds in our favor.

  • Time. Saccharin is the most maligned of this bunch, yet it's been around more than 100 years and is still on the market. Sure, there is some negative research out there, but it can't be that bad! A lot of people consume a lot of different artificial sweeteners. If people were dropping like flies, we'd probably hear about it.

  • Research. If one of these sweeteners were so good, why would other people keep trying to come up with better ones? From this fact alone, we know that at least some of those negative findings must have an inkling of merit.

  • Money. The influence of big business can keep need-to-know information from the public (again, Vioxx, etc).

  • Artificial or natural? "Artificial" sounds bad, and "natural" sounds good. But just because something is natural does not mean it's good. Tobacco and opium are natural. So the claim that Stevia is good because "it's natural" bears little relevance. Many very beneficial drugs are artificial. However, you generally don't want to take them habitually, which is how some people use artificial sweeteners. Artificial doesn't mean bad, but it should mean caution.

  • Anecdotal. I'm going to share two quick stories:

    • First, my sister is a sweet leaf proponent. It's time honored and natural, but lacks FDA approval. She lobbied Starbucks for a natural alternative to Splenda (chlorinated sugar). She got a long line of positive responses up the chain of command until, finally, they stopped returning her calls. A short time later, her local market (a chain that she used as an example for Starbucks) was forced to stop offering sweet leaf with their coffee and only sell it as a "supplement." Coincidence or a blatant case of big business (Starbucks and/or the folks who bring you Splenda) using strong-arm tactics against someone who truly cares about your health? In the wake of the FDA scandal, it's hard not to at least harbor a little suspicion.

    • Next is a female athlete that I trained who could not lose weight, despite being in great shape and eating a strict diet. Her vice was about 100 ounces of no-cal soft drinks per day. She would eye double Big Gulps like a junky does crack. When we were able to get her off the stuff—she even drank some sugared soft drinks to do so—she lost 15 pounds. Now, I'll say this had more to do with all the phosphorus and her body's pH balance but, still, who really knows what all those chemicals are doing in your system?

Bottom line: There is no hard evidence that any one sweetener is better than the others. Most likely, this stuff won't kill you. But given we also know it's not 100% safe, it would seem wise to limit your consumption as much as possible.

Five favorite ways to cut down sugar consumption without ruining all of your fun:

  1. Portion Control Your DessertPortion control. I recently saw a sign in a Denny's window saying "Remember, an apple a day" on a dessert that was an apple surrounded by about 2,000 calories of sugar and fat. Our society has gone crazy for "bigger is better." After dinner, your body is not hungry. You don't need 2,000 extra calories. You don't need 200! If you savor a square of chocolate or a tablespoon of Ben & Jerry's slowly, it will curb your cravings without a noticeable effect on your diet.

  2. Don't snack on artificial sweeteners. Gum is probably the worst snack because it creates a stimulus-response action that causes you to crave sweet stuff constantly.

  3. Fruit DessertAdd some fruit to your sugar or artificial sweetener. Fruit is both sweet and good for you. However, I realize an apple might not be enough all by itself to satiate your sweet tooth. But you can dress up fruit with a very small amount of "real" dessert and make it pretty darn decadent.

  4. Make sure you have some complex carbs in your diet. This sounds boring but complex carbs, like whole grains, sweet potatoes, rice, beans n' stuff, all slowly break down into blood sugar. If your blood sugar is steady, you won't crave sugar. You might still habitually crave it, but that's a ton better than a sugar crash craving, which will likely lead to bingeing.

  5. Protein ShakeThe protein powder trick. Most protein powders have a small amount of sugar, a touch of artificial sweetener, and are 90% protein. If you can find one you like (ours is fantastic, ahem, ahem), you might be able to curb your cravings with a high-protein snack. Chalene Johnson, the creator of Turbo Jam", uses chocolate protein powder as a base for pudding and Beachbody Advice Staff Denis Faye sprinkles it on cereal. If you get creative, the possibilities may be endless!

Next class is The What, Why, and When About What Goes into Your Mouth

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