When it comes to eating right, ditching unhealthy food is only half the battle. Of course, finding healthy substitutes is important, but sometimes it’s what you don’t see on the ingredient list that can hurt you the most.
Take sweetener, for example. If you’re human, you crave sugar. It’s just the way it is. You want sweet snacks and desserts because sugar shoots a message directly to the reward center in your brain and makes you feel great — for a passing moment. And adding some sweetness to your food can make bland but healthy items more palatable.
But, how you get your sweetness matters.
The thing is, a poor choice could turn a healthy snack into a minefield. There’s good news though… there are plenty of low-calorie sweeteners out there — but not all are created equal. So, when it comes to a healthy diet, a little creativity can go a long way.
What Makes Refined Sugars So Bad?
Now, for a long time, people thought fat should be avoided at all costs. So, they stayed away from fat — even good fats. The problem was it just led to people eating more refined sugars rather than substituting with purely healthy foods.1
On average, the typical American eats 22 teaspoons of refined sugar every day!2
To put this in perspective, the American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons of refined sugar a day for most men. And women should try to have even less — no more than six teaspoons a day.3 No, it’s not fair, but it is what’s suggested.
Now, if you’re getting lots of calories from sugar or processed foods, the first place you’ll likely see the negative results is your waist or stomach. Calories do fuel many of your body’s functions, but if you don’t burn that fuel, the sugars just sit there and take the form of body fat.4,5
As a result, you may doom your diet. And this may just be the tip of the iceberg. You see, excess sugar consumption has been linked to a variety of health issues. For example, people who get 25% or more of their caloric intake from sugar are more than twice as likely to develop serious heart issues.6
In fact, lowering your sugar intake may even help in an otherwise poor diet. One unique study profiled children ages 8 to 18. These children had a special menu designed to match the calories they normally ate per day.
However, the major difference was that every bit of sugar was replaced by a starch. The results were quite positive.
The children showed —
- Lower fasting blood sugar levels
- Less fat in the liver
- Lower levels of LDL cholesterol
- Some participants’ insulin resistance even improved7
So, lowering your added sugar may be one of the best ways to see your health improve.
Knowing Your Options
Good news: there are plenty of ways to sweeten your food without using refined sugars. Here are some standouts…
Dates are a favorite in the Middle East and North Africa. One of the most common dates you’re likely to see here is the Medjool date.
On top of being sweet and tasty, Medjool dates are also packed with important nutrients like potassium. Getting more potassium in your diet can help with blood pressure and even serve as a natural diuretic.8
Furthermore, the potassium content in dates is also linked to lowered levels of LDL cholesterol in the body. So, if those refined sugars are pumping up your cholesterol levels, replacing them with dates may help bring things back to healthy levels.9
2. Maple Syrup
Most people think of a nice stack of pancakes when it comes to maple syrup, but this is a valuable sweetener for all kinds of meals. Many compare maple syrup to honey, but believe it or not, the syrup has a lower calorie count and is vegan to boot!
Researchers are finding that maple syrup is actually rich in some pretty helpful nutrients like phytochemicals, zinc, manganese, and calcium.10
Notably, 100 grams of maple syrup also contains a whopping 165% of the recommended daily value for manganese.11 Perhaps the most nutritional value lies in the antioxidant content of maple syrup, though. In fact, one study found as many as 24 antioxidants in a single serving.12 The fact that these help reduce cell damage means there could be a ton of health applications for maple syrup in the future.13
Now, maple syrup is still a sugar — and should still be used in moderation — so remember. A little goes a LONG way.
Stevia is an herb that’s been used as a sweet treat and remedy in South America for centuries. So, you may want to add it to your sweetener rotation.
Perhaps one of the most important ways that stevia can help is for those with issues regulating glucose. One study showed that having stevia before a meal reduced blood glucose and insulin levels.14Studies have also shown that it might reduce blood pressure when taken as a supplement.15
There’s one thing about stevia that may set it apart from this list: it’s non-caloric. Seriously. There’s not a single calorie in stevia. So, if you’re putting together a weight loss plan or counting calories, stevia can be an invaluable tool.
4. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are so delicious and they’re a great option if you’re looking for ways to sweeten your food. In fact, recent studies have pointed to the sweet potato as one of the best sources of beta-carotene. Apparently, the sweet potato can also work wonders in terms of increasing the body’s vitamin A and antioxidant content.16
Another thing sweet potatoes have is fiber — and plenty of it. Fiber helps your digestive system, but may also support heart health and even lower your risk of certain conditions.17
There are other superstar sweeteners as well, like fruit.
Finally, everyone knows that big things can certainly come in small packages. And adding berries to your meal-plan can bring extra sweetness. Of all the fruits — blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries have some of the highest antioxidant content around.18 All you need to give you an idea of how nutrient-rich berries can be is to take a quick look at the nutritional value of one cup of blackberries:
- Vitamin C: 50% of your daily recommended value
- Manganese: 47% of your daily recommended value
- Vitamin K: 36% of your daily recommended value
- Copper: 12% of your daily recommended value
- Folate: 9% of your daily recommended value19
Berries have been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels as well.20
Natural Sweeteners In Review
Overall, there are a pretty wonderful collection of alternative sweetening options out there — many of which have plenty of health benefits in their own right.
So, before you add sugar to your morning coffee or to your favorite baking recipe, consider one of the natural alternatives listed above. Your body will be glad you’re still feeding it something sweet, but it’ll be grateful you’re also feeding it something healthy.
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