In 2012 I was pregnant with my 3rd child, and coming out of my typical pattern of a first trimester full of 24/7 nausea (yet never vomiting) and extreme hunger (without the desire to eat anything).
I was convinced that pregnancy was not supposed to be this way, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. As a Registered Nurse who knew “all the things” that were supposed to be done to combat pregnancy discomforts…
…I found that none of them worked for me.
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I had a vague feeling that the way I was eating, specifically the amount of nutrition in my everyday diet, might play a role in my pregnancy nausea. I’d heard the term “real food” before, but didn’t know much about it.
It felt like a good lead to investigate.
So I googled it, and discovered Kitchen Stewardship, which was and continues to be one of my favorite resources for real food inspiration and teaching my kids practical kitchen skills.
And what was one of the very first real food villains I learned about?
Buuut…the recommendations weren’t always what I expected. And I still felt vaguely unsettled about one thing that every real food blogger recommended…
…switching to “natural” sugars
Are “natural” sugars a better alternative?
One of the first recommendations I discovered was to reduce (or completely cut out) processed sugars by replacing them with “natural” sugars.
What are natural sugars? They are things like:
- Maple Syrup
- Coconut Sugar
There are two significant problems with this list of natural sugars, however.
Natural sugars are expensive!
When I did my first cost analysis of how much MORE my recipes were going to cost using natural sugars rather the super cheap white sugar, I about swallowed my tongue.
Making a “one-to-one” switch of processed sugar to natural sugar is expensive.
To be honest with you, this was the first step in a loooong line of well-intentioned (but misguided) decisions I made that quickly ballooned my grocery budget. Luckily for you, I made all the mistakes so that you don’t have to.
Natural sugar acts the same as processed sugar inside your body
As a Registered Nurse, I had a BIG issue with believing that these natural sugars were somehow magically better for us than more processed sugars.
See, when carbs and sugars are digested, they are broken down into glucose and moved into our blood stream. This is why our blood sugar increases after eating.
But at that point, the body doesn’t care if the sugar is “natural” or “processed” anymore! It just knows that it’s time to start dealing with all the glucose in the blood. And it does so by moving glucose into the body’s cells so it can be used for energy (this is where insulin comes in, BTW).
And if there is too much glucose to transport into the cells in a timely manner, then our body is amazingly designed to package up that extra glucose and store it away in our liver for later. (I highly recommend watching That Sugar Film, currently available to stream for free with Amazon Prime…it’s a fun documentary that also does a really excellent job at showing this process in action!)
The problem comes when we are constantly eating sugar.
With the way most of us typically eat, the body always has too much sugar in the blood stream. And it never needs to take any out of storage. And this causes problems for our arteries, our hormones (insulin is a hormone, did you know that?), our liver, our weight, and many other aspects of our health.
(An exception to this explanation is foods that hit the blood stream as fructose rather than glucose…fructose has to be transformed into glucose by the liver before it can be used by the body, therefore it *technically* doesn’t effect blood sugar. However, it also seems to increase other negative markers in the body, and may lead to fatty liver disease. This is why High-Fructose Corn Syrup and even Agave Syrup are believed by many to be some of the worst of the processed sugars.)
Obviously, this is a highly simplified explanation of what goes on in our complex bodies when we eat sugar. You can also check out this article if you’re interested in learning more details about the different types of sugars and how our body processes them.
Is there any benefit to Natural Sugars?
Before I move on into the details of “how much” sugar is best, let me clarify…I definitely DO believe that natural sugars are better for us than the more processed sugars!
It’s just a huge pet peeve of mine when bloggers imply that processed sugars can be substituted “one-for-one” for natural sugars without any negative impact on your health. Leading you to believe that you can continue eating the same amount of sugar you always have…as long as you can afford it.
But you’re not going to fall into that trap anymore, are you?
Like I said, however, I still choose to use more natural sugars when I can. My rationale goes like this…
What’s the difference between processed sugar and natural sugar?
White sugar has been completely stripped of all nutrients. The only thing left in it is calories, which will be converted into energy for your body.
But even that comes at a net cost.
See, many people make the argument that eating highly refined sugars actually causes a nutrient deficit in the body. That when you eat the sugar, it literally “uses up” more nutrition than it provides during the digestive process.
And since natural sugars still have small amounts of nutrients remaining in them, they will (at the very least) “pay their own way” when it comes to replacing the nutrients they use up during digestion.
Isn’t that thoughtful of them.
On the other hand, you can find many medical experts who completely discount this hypothesis, and claim that the amount of nutrients in natural sugars is so small as to be negligible.
So what’s a Mama to do about processed sugar versus natural sugar?!?
I tend to be of the opinion that modern medical experts inappropriately minimize the importance of micro-nutrients in our diet, and that even small amounts of micro-nutrients can be beneficial to our bodies. Especially when they are part of a larger pattern of eating that tries to maximize micro-nutrient intake across all foods (ahem…like in “real food” eating).
All this to say, I DO believe that natural sugars are slightly better for us than highly refined sugars. But I DON’T believe that they will significantly improve our health, especially when used as a one-to-one replacement for our current sugar addictions…ahem, I mean habits.
In any case, my medical background and my new “real food” obsession collided as I gradually (and very, very sadly) acknowledged this vital truth:
No matter how you look at it, the most important thing about sugar is not what kind you eat…but how much you eat.
How much sugar should you eat?
Unfortunately, most foods we eat don’t come with a measuring spoon specifically for sugar. But you can easily calculate how much added sugar is in any food that has a nutrition label (or recipe, if homemade) by using some basic math.
It would be too much to go into detail about how to analyze a nutrition label for sugar content here, but if you’re interested then I will explain exactly how to do that in a future blog post.
Suffice it to say that 4 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar. Therefore, you want to eat 6 teaspoons (24 grams) or less of added sugar per day.
And it doesn’t matter what kind of added sugar either…natural OR processed.
IMPORTANT NOTE: “Whole food” sources of sugar are not the same thing as added sugar. So don’t stress about eating fresh fruit, because that’s really nutritious and definitely not what we’re talking about here.
How much added sugar do you already eat?
Now let’s move on to how sugar you currently eat.
I’m going to tell it to you straight: you eat more sugar than you think you do.
Don’t believe me? Then I challenge you to keep a Food Diary for 1-2 weeks to prove it.
Once you’ve done that, you can look back at the foods you’ve eaten during your Food Diary and objectively estimate how many teaspoons of sugar per day that you averaged.
I really think you’ll be shocked at your results.
And if you’re ready to start reducing your added sugar intake, then you’ve also just identified the baby steps you need to be successful in the long-term.
Easy Hacks for eating less added sugar
I’ve seen friends add 6 teaspoons of sugar (or more!) to their first cup of coffee of the day. And I strongly suspect that coffee is not the only source of added sugar in their diet.
Want to ruin your day? Look up the nutrition label for your favorite Starbucks drink. Now calculate how much added sugar is in it.
But there is a definite upside to having so many ways that added sugar can sneak into our diet…
…there’s also sooo many ways that we can easily (and painlessly) remove some.
Reduce the amount of sugar in homemade recipes
Last night, my husband made an egg nog recipe for the second time. He literally cut the amount of sugar in half…and couldn’t tell the difference.
Many recipes include so much added sugar that our tongues no longer notice. But even if you can only reduce the added sugar in a recipe by 1/4 cup, that is equal to 16 teaspoons. It’s not an insignificant amount.
Experiment with whole food sweeteners
One of my new favorite sweeteners is Date Paste! (recipe coming soon) I love using it in recipes like this Ginger Peach Mug Cake, which has absolutely no added sugar in it…but still tastes delicious.
And I never feel guilty eating it for breakfast (or giving it to my kids as a “sweet treat”).
Unsweetened applesauce is another excellent whole food sweetener to experiment with.
Using pureed fruit as a sweetener can change the texture of your baked goods a bit, so it won’t work for everything. But it’s a great option for when you’re craving something but don’t want to eat more added sugars.
Make different choices for packaged foods
Did you know that pretty much every brand of Spaghetti Sauce has added sugar in it?
It really boggles my mind, because tomatoes are so sweet all by themselves.
That’s why I switched to using Crushed Tomatoes with some Italian Seasonings added, instead of using a brand name spaghetti sauce. It’s less expensive, plus I don’t have to deal with added sugars…and I can season it exactly how I like.
BONUS: I can even sneak in extra veggies like diced onions, shredded zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, or anything else that I want to use up from my produce drawer.
Living long-term with less added sugar
I’m not going to lie to you: when you start cutting out added sugars, you might find the sweetness in your life a bit lacking.
But I can promise from personal experience that if you stick with it, your taste buds will gradually adjust and you will find that you enjoy food just as much if not more because you start to appreciate a wider variety of tastes.
In fact, I’ve even come to discover that some foods I used to love are no longer as enjoyable to me.
(Bye-bye Chai Latte, you used to be my favorite, but now I can’t even take a few sips without finding you to be sickeningly sweet.)
Full Disclosure: You might also discover that the new recipes you’ve been experimenting with really satisfy your sweet cravings…
… only to be politely declined by friends and family as not being quite sweet enough.
That’s okay, more for you!
Leave a comment: What sugar offender do you already know that you should reduce? Which one are you most scared to cut out?