Sunday, July 20, 2008

Healing Foods: Wholesome Sweets

White sugar has long been considered a nutritional nemesis-and not just by hard-line health fanatics. From doctors to dentists, the mainstream medical community has long issued warnings about excessive sugar intake, noting the part sugar plays in obesity and tooth decay. But the story doesn't end with refined white sugar, nor with cavities and weight gain. Excess sugar in any form can present a myriad of maladies and wreak havoc on overall health.

The Not-So-Sweet Story Of Sugar

White sugar, or sucrose, is the sweetener that has fallen into the gravest ill repute. Sugar, from sugar cane and sugar beets, is completely stripped of all nutrients during the refining process. The natural dark color of unrefined sugar is removed by bleaching, using a chemical process that incorporates animal by-products to produce the white, crystalline substance we sprinkle on our cereals or dump into our coffee.

The possible detrimental effects of white sugar, specifically, are numerous and discouraging. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and The American Heart Journal agree: sugar can contribute to obesity, tooth decay, impaired cellular growth, nutrient deficiencies, increased cholesterol levels, hypoglycemia, heart disease, and diabetes. And while refined white sugar is stripped of its natural nutrients, minerals are still required to adequately metabolize it in the body. When sugar is ingested, the body mobilizes stored vitamins and minerals, including salt, potassium, chromium, magnesium, and calcium to accommodate the rapid absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.

Furthermore, white sugar, which is rapidly absorbed into the blood as glucose, creates a roller-coaster ride in the body, with rapid ups and downs in blood sugar levels. To compensate for dramatic increases in blood glucose levels, the pancreas overproduces insulin to allow glucose to be absorbed by body cells. As a result, blood glucose levels drop to lower levels than before sugar consumption.

In spite of these consequences, Americans continue their tragic love affair with refined sugar. It's estimated that we consume about one-fifth of the world's sugar production, about 31 billion pounds every year. For some Americans, sugar makes up 20 percent of their daily diet. In our country, refined white sugar is the third most frequently consumed food-right after coffee and white bread.

The Highs And Lows Of Blood Sugar

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is marked by abnormally low levels of glucose or rapid fluctuations of blood sugar levels. The main cause is, of course, excessive consumption of refined sugars and simple carbohydrates. Other factors-including food allergies, nutrient deficiencies, excessive exercise, stress, caffeine, alcohol and drug use, and cigarette smoking may also contribute to hypoglycemia.

The symptoms related to hypoglycemia are broad and varied, and may range from mild to severe. In fact, because of the broad nature of complaints, hypoglycemia is one of the most frequently misdiagnosed medical conditions. Some symptoms include anxiety, weakness, sweating, rapid heart rate, lethargy, irritability, dizziness, impaired memory, lack of concentration, extreme hunger, and digestive problems.

The recommended treatment for hypoglycemia includes eating five or six small meals throughout the day to maintain a stable level of blood glucose. Caffeine, alcohol, simple carbohydrates, and refined sugars should be avoided. The diet should focus on whole, unprocessed foods including whole grains, nuts and seeds, and adequate protein. An abundance of fiber is important, too, since fiber has a stabilizing influence on glucose levels.

Diabetes And Diet--Sweet Relief

Diabetes mellitus is a chronic, degenerative disease that manifests itself in a lack of insulin-a hormone produced in the body which is necessary for sugar metabolism. In a normal, healthy body, the pancreas produces the right amount of insulin to metabolize and maintain steady blood sugar levels. People with diabetes cannot produce insulin or are resistant to insulin that is produced in their bodies. As a result, their bodies are unable to remove excess glucose from the bloodstream. The ultimate effects of diabetes include heart disease, kidney disease, hypertension, gangrene, infections, blindness, strokes, and death.

Two types of diabetes exist: Type I (insulin-dependent diabetes) is characterized by the body's inability to produce insulin. Type II (non-insulin-dependent adult-onset diabetes) is the more common form, and generally occurs in middle age. In Type II diabetes, the pancreas produces insulin to metabolize sugar in the blood. The body, however, resists the action of insulin and fails to absorb excess glucose in the blood. Indications of Type I diabetes include extreme hunger, constant thirst, frequent or excessive urination, and weight loss. Type II, or adult-onset, diabetes can usually be controlled by natural methods, including diet, weight management, and certain supplements.

Diet alone can control most cases of Type II adult-onset diabetes. Most people with adult-onset diabetes are overweight, and obesity and excess caloric intake aggravate the condition by creating a resistance to insulin. Additionally, certain supplements can help balance the body in general and treat diabetes specifically.

Hold The Sugar: A New Way Of Eating

Since most cases of adult-onset diabetes can be controlled with diet, the best solution is a regimen consisting of natural, unprocessed, high-fiber foods and abstinence from refined, processed foods, especially white sugar. The focus should be on complex carbohydrates such as whole, organic grains and vegetables, beans and legumes, fresh fruits in moderation, and cultured milk products like yogurt. Foods to steer clear of include refined sugar, white flour, excess fats, coffee and caffeine, and dried fruits because of their high concentration of sugars. Natural sweeteners including honey, maple syrup, and molasses should be used with caution.

Some debate exists as to whether sugar actually triggers diabetes. The traditional diet for diabetics avoided an abundance of fruits and carbohydrates. According to the Environmental Nutrition newsletter, current guidelines from the American Diabetes Association do allow simple carbohydrates, since it has been postulated that the total amount of carbohydrates, rather than the type of carbohydrate is the main concern. Other research has revealed that diabetic patients who followed diets limited in simple sugars but rich in complex carbohydrates such as beans, grains, and vegetables experienced a substantial blood sugar drop.

High-fiber foods are crucial for stabilizing blood sugar levels. Dietary fibers help lower blood sugar levels and decrease the rate of absorption of sugars into the bloodstream. The recommended amount of fiber intake ranges from 25 to 35 grams per day. Since most people only consume about 12 to 18 grams per day, diabetics may need to triple their fiber intake, gradually. One suggestion: have a bowl of beans for breakfast. It's a fast way to add fiber to your diet, and may help stabilize blood sugar levels through the day.

Sweet Nothings: Supplements For Balancing Blood Sugar

Although certain nutrients are necessary for metabolizing sugar, they may be missing from your body if your diet is high in refined, processed foods. Some supplements that can help modulate blood sugar levels include chromium, manganese, zinc, B-complex, inositol, and vitamin C. According to the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Gymnema sylvestre, an Ayurvedic herb, may reduce insulin requirements. Stevia is an herbal sweetener that helps stabilize blood sugar levels and doesn't require insulin for its metabolism. The Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism report that the herb fenugreek contains compounds that have been shown to decrease blood sugar levels in diabetics.

Dessert By Any Other Name

So what's a health-conscious American with a sweet tooth to do? Holding the sugar doesn't mean shunning sweets entirely. Numerous natural forms of sweeteners exist that contain nutrients lacking in refined white sugar, are metabolized more slowly by the body, and cause fewer ill health effects than white sugar.

Other names for sugar include corn syrup, syrup, glucose, sucrose, and dextrose. These are only marginally better, if at all, than refined white sugar. Because of potential health hazards, artificial sweeteners, like saccharine, obviously aren't an option in a healthy diet. Natural sweeteners include raw, unfiltered honey, fructose, maple syrup, Sucanat, barley malt, rice syrup, and molasses. These are preferred to refined white sugar, and are helpful transitional foods to ease cravings for sweets. Coconut powder and raisin water can be used as substitutes for sugar in cooking. Even so, they're still sugars, and should be used in moderation. Remember, too, that sugar is cleverly concealed in many processed and packaged foods, from ketchup and condiments to breakfast cereals. Read labels carefully for sugar content, and try to stick to a diet that focuses on whole, unprocessed foods.

For quick sweet treats, the simplest solution is whole fruits. Baked apples sprinkled with cinnamon make a quick and healthy dessert. Frozen bananas are a creamy, cooling substitute for ice cream-just peel the bananas, place them in a plastic bag, and freeze them for 10 to 12 hours. Frozen chunks of watermelon make great summer snacks. Smoothies made of fresh fruits blended with rice or soy milk and natural protein powder are a nutrition-packed way to start your day. Raisins, dates, figs, or other dried fruits can be eaten in moderation for quick snacks during the day. And try the other healthy treats offered here-they're guaranteed to satisfy even the most persistent sweet tooth.

Very Berry Pear Crunch

Makes 6 servings

Photo of Very Berry Pear Crunch Recipe Fresh, juicy berries and ripe pears are the key sweetening ingredient in this simple dessert.

3 cups sliced pears
1/2 cup each, raspberries and blueberries
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup raw, unfiltered honey
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
3/4 cup uncooked old-fashioned oatmeal
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
Cooking spray or oil

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly spray or oil a 9-inch square baking pan.

2. In a large bowl, gently combine pears, berries, lemon juice, and vanilla. Let sit for 15 minutes.

3. In another bowl, combine honey and oil and stir until smooth. Add oatmeal and whole-wheat flour; mix well.

4. Transfer fruit to prepared baking dish and top with oatmeal mixture. Bake until pears are soft and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.


PER SERVING: 224 CAL (30% from fat), 3g PROT, 7.4g FAT, 35g CARB, 2mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 5g FIBER

Celestial Ambrosia

Makes 6 servings

The inspired combination of juicy peaches, creamy bananas, and ripe berries makes a healthy treat that lives up to its heavenly name.

2 medium bananas, sliced on the diagonal
2 cups blackberries
2 very ripe peaches, peeled and sliced
1 cup fat-free yogurt or soy yogurt
2 tablespoons rice syrup (see glossary)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
Mint sprigs

1. In a large bowl, gently toss together bananas, blackberries, and peaches. In another bowl, combine yogurt, rice syrup, and vanilla. Mix until smooth, then stir in coconut.

2. Add yogurt dressing to fruit and stir gently. Serve chilled, garnished with mint sprigs.


PER SERVING: 177 CAL (30% from fat), 3g PROT, 6g FAT, 27g CARB, 33mg SOD, 1mg CHOL, 5g FIBER

Dreamy Orange Cream

Makes 4 servings

Remember Dreamsicles? This creamy, dreamy concoction is a natural, healthy, fat-free substitute for childhood sweet treats.

2-1/2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup fat-free yogurt or soy yogurt
2 tablespoons Sucanat (see glossary)
1/2 cup crushed ice
Orange slices

1. Combine orange juice, yogurt, Sucanat, and ice in a blender. Puree until thick and creamy.

2. Pour mixture into a metal or glass bowl and freeze for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes until smooth.

3. Thaw slightly and spoon into individual serving dishes. Garnish with orange slices.


PER SERVING: 130 CAL (2% from fat), 4g PROT, 0.2g FAT, 27g CARB, 60mg SOD, 1.4mg CHOL, 1g FIBER

Mango Banana Freeze

Makes 6 servings

This refreshing combination of mangoes and bananas makes a luscious, low-fat dessert or breakfast treat.

2 medium, very ripe mangoes
4 medium, very ripe bananas
1-1/2 cups rice milk
1/2 cup crushed ice
1/4 cup unsweetened flaked coconut

1. Peel mangoes and cut into chunks, scraping extra flesh off insides of skin. Reserve a few slices of mango for garnish. Peel and slice bananas.

2. In a blender or food processor, combine mangoes, bananas, rice milk, and crushed ice. Puree until thick and smooth. Stir in coconut.

3. Pour mixture into 4 individual dishes and freeze for 1 hour. To serve, thaw slightly and garnish with sliced mango.


PER SERVING: 207 CAL (28% from fat), 2g PROT, 6.5g FAT, 35g CARB, 29mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 4g FIBER

Watermelon Mint Slushie

Makes 4 servings

Juicy watermelon and cool mint whipped together makes a naturally sweet and low-calorie slush for a midday snack or summer breakfast drink.

3 cups cubed fresh watermelon, seeds removed
1/2 cup cold mint tea
1/2 cup sparkling water
Mint sprigs

1. In a large freezer bag or container, freeze watermelon overnight.

2. In a blender or food processor, combine frozen watermelon with tea and sparkling water. Puree until thick and smooth. Pour into glasses and serve garnished with mint sprigs.


PER SERVING: 38 CAL (6% from fat), 1g PROT, 0.2g FAT, 8g CARB, 3mg SOD, 0mg CHOL, 0.5g FIBER

No comments: