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Gluten, Sugar, Love: Tales From the Path to Joy - Labels

It is easy to be good when J and I are together, but, I’m afraid of what will happen when I am alone.  We are leaving Big Fresh and I need something sweet.  I ask J if we can stop at Trader Joe’s.  “Sure”, he says.  I buy a bag of raisins, a bag of mixed nuts, a jar of organic raw honey, and some 2% plain greek yogurt---high fat and high sweet snacks.  “Doesn’t yogurt have sugar?” asks J.  “Not the plain yogurt”, I reply.  J picks up the carton and looks at the back, “it says 23 grams of sugar”.  I check the ingredients, there’s only milk listed.  “It must be the lactose”, I tell him, “lactose is sugar”.  For now, we’re good with this, but what does this mean in terms of our health?  If the total grams of sugar a person should have per day is 9grams, is this yogurt something to avoid? 

One of the most confusing things about trying to get healthy is the vast amount of contradictory information out there. First they told us red meat would give us heart disease, then Atkins told us to eat nothing but meat--that carbohydrates were the problem.  Saturated fat was supposed to be evil, now cocunut oil, a saturated fat, is good.  Today they tell us that high fructose corn syrup is bad for you but fruit contains fructose and fruit is supposed to be good for you.  So which is it?  The truth is that there is truth in all and none of it.  Studies are constantly being conducted to find the answers to what we don’t know, which means that we don’t know everything.  And nature has been functioning very well without our technology since the beginning of time and probably does know everything.  The food companies know one thing for certain--eating healthy sells.  So they use known health-related terms on their labels to market the begeezuz of their products.  My favorite was reading that Boar’s Head sliced deli meat was “gluten-free”...isn’t sliced meat supposed to be just sliced meat?  Why would they need to assure us that it was gluten-free unless there was something else in there or they understood the marketing power of the phrase, “gluten-free”?

The first thing to do is get to know how to read a label. If the Boar’s Head example does one thing it should raise the question, “what is in sliced deli meat?”  The answer lies right on the back, and I don’t mean on the nutrition information label either.  I mean the fine print at the bottom or the side--the list of ingredients.  The smaller the paragraph, the better the food.  The best packaged food has 1-3 ingredients and they should be easy to pronounce and identify.  Beyond that, you are messing with nature.  Stick with the whole food and you can’t go wrong.

The next thing to do is understand your body’s needs.  J. and I were not clear about what we were trying to achieve by cutting out sugar.  I mean, yes, we want to do it for our health, but even that is too general when it comes to making decisions about what to eat when that sugar craving gets a hold of you.  Heroin addicts have it easy--when they give up heroin, they just eat sugar.  When you give up sugar, you have a load of options, a long list of sweeteners parading around as natural and healthy when they are not, and it is really confusing.

I came to J’s house one day to find him very excited.  His housemate’s boyfriend had made sugar-free brownies.  “Look!” he says, “he used Agave syrup.  They taste really good!  Agave is ok, isn’t it? ”  He looked like a little kid and, with the maker of said brownies within earshot, I didn’t want to say too much.  I knew that Agave syrup was not good, but I didn't know why.  All I remember is that feeling of betrayal at learning that this “healthy” option wasn’t healthy.  And so I said the only thing I could, “it depends on what you’re trying to achieve”.  How I pulled that good answer out of my bum is a wonder, but it is the best answer.  When I looked it up afterwards I found that Agave syrup is High-Fructose Corn Syrup on Steroids.  Processed from its natural state it has trace minerals but is 90% fructose (high-fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose).  Because it is less sweet, it gets a low glycemic index, but that means you usually have to use more than glucose (table sugar) to sweeten things.  Because it is processed so far away from its natural state, it has none of the complexity that makes the fructose in fruit digestible over longer stretches of time.  Agave syrup is NOT what you want to use to replace sugar if you want to avoid inflammation, liver toxicity, belly fat, and heart disease.  

When trying to cut sugar out of your diet, you need to understand your goals.  Do you just want to quit processed sugar? or do you want to avoid insulin resistance? Do you want to avoid inflammation? or do you just want to manage an addiction?  Determining your reason for quitting sugar is the key to making decisions about what is ok or not in this world of processed foods. 

If you are diabetic, almost all sugars are bad for you, even fruit.  If you are prediabetic and want to keep from getting diabetes, you pretty much have to follow the same rules diabetics do.  If you are healthy, you have no inflammation (that means you have nothing ending with “-itis”), you have a balanced immune system (no allergies, infrequent colds and infections), no migraines, bloating, or fibromyalgia and want to stay that way, you balance your meals by eating lots of vegetables and stay away from “added” sugars or choose the sugar substitutes that are natural and complex. That makes it somewhat easier.  

Having that jar of raw honey at the studio was a mistake for me.  While mixing it with high-fat yogurt on that crazy low-dopamine afternoon was perfect, I used it one day to sweeten my herbal tea (which I normally don’t sweeten) and continued to drink tea all afternoon as I caught up on administrative work.  By evening that familiar unpleasant feeling came over me.  I started to sweat and shake, I had that desperate need for something to eat (despite having eaten two hearty meals already), my tongue started tingling, and I started to feel dizzy.  I had spiked my sugar too much, over-produced insulin, and was sending myself into shock with all-natural, raw honey.  Thankfully I also had the bag of nuts and raisins nearby and ate the entire bag before the awful feeling went away.  Since giving up sugar 20 days ago I have had three such hypoglycemic episodes, once when doing light exercise after a high-protein, mixed vegetable salad.  So, I obviously need carbs in the diet and I need to find the right kind of sugars.  The last time I detoxed, I gave up honey along with sugar, now I know why.  Honey, even raw honey, with its trace minerals, spikes your blood sugar.  It is only ok in moderation.  

When I detoxed seven years ago, I only used Brown Rice syrup, stevia, and pure maple syrup to sweeten things--and I had no hypoglycemia.  (Then again, I was coming from a diet of Double-stuff oreos and Cheez-its, starving would have been healthy in comparison)  Today, I read that Dr. Daniel Amen, who has done extensive studies on how sugar affects the brain, reports only using brown rice syrup and stevia at home.  So, how is Brown Rice Syrup, which has a high glycemic index, ok?  The answer is in the processing.  Unlike Agave syrup, which is extracted, filtered, heated, and hydrolyzed, leaving little of the original plant, Brown Rice Syrup is cultured with enzymes, leaving a syrup that is 50% complex carbohydrates.  So, while Brown Rice syrup is sweet, it is not so simple (kinda like me).  The body uses the sugars over time keeping the insulin levels steady and low.  So when questioning what is good for you and what is not, the answer lies, again, in nature.  The more complex something is, the better (I’ve been trying to explain this to men all my life, hehe).  But beware of the advertising, just because something is 100% natural, doesn’t mean it is good for you.  Remember that table sugar and corn syrup are 100% natural.  It has to be 100% or close to 100% whole for it to be good for you. Ignore what the label says on the front, go for the list of ingredients and know your ingredients.

The two staples in our diets that caused us the most chagrin when shopping were candy (or chocolate bars) and cereal (J. has "healthy" granola every morning that was loaded with sugar and gluten).  Last night J. and I got together to make our first batch of homemade granola--the beauty of which is that you get to choose what goes into it and it costs significantly less than the gluten-free labeled stuff.  I have to tell you it was better than any granola I’ve ever had, and we were winging it!  Last week, purely by accident, I realized that we could make candy the old-fashioned way.

Twice weekly I teach physically demanding classes in the city and stay at my mom's who lives there.  Often she has a healthy meal waiting for me, but, occasionally, she does not--she has a life, after all.  Last week I went to bed after having an omelet and tomato salad.  Within an hour I was up again, feeling like I was starving.  As a fitness instructor I consume more calories than the average person.  I need carbs.  My choices were limited.  Gluten-laden whole wheat bread or Turron, a candy from Spain that is popular around the holidays.  I went for the sugar-fix, and in no small way.  I ate the whole box of almond-filled white nougat candy.  Boy did I feel weak.  I mean, I felt great, my body thanked me, but, again, I felt like I had compromised myself--until I went to hide the empty box and read the ingredients.  Hah!  Egg whites, almonds, and honey.  Though not perfect, it was nothing like a bag of M&Ms.  This was a high protein snack naturally low in sugar with whole ingredients prepared the traditional way.  “They’ve been making sweets for a long time before discovering sugar”, I thought.  If we can make our own granola, we can make our own candy.  

J and I resolved to make our own chocolate bar using coconut oil, raw honey, and unsweetened cocoa.  We follow the instructions from a recipe on the internet, but end up with a terrific mess.  The oil refuses to mix with the other ingredients and we’ve got it all over our hands, the counter, the double-boiler, the mixing spoons, our clothes---it’s a mess!  We’re disheartened as we think of the waste (a jar of coconut oil goes for over $10) until J tastes the part that’s chocolate.  “Mmmmmm, this tastes SO GOOD!”  I taste it.  Indeed!  As a pole-dance instructor I know that some of the coolest moves ever, probably pole-dancing itself, were discovered through failure--a dancer catching herself as she falls.  “Let’s just make them into little balls and roll them in coconut” I suggest.  J shrugs.  We try it.  I dip my clean hands into the mixture and massage chunks of oily cocoa powder, honey and pecan bits into little balls between my palms and pass them to J who rolls them on a plate piled high with shredded coconut.  Again I feel that connection that happens when I have a partner, a collaborator, a playmate.  I am amazed to have found such a thing in a man.  The finished product looks appealing, like something you would buy or give as a gift.  J tastes it and moans.  That is exactly the response you want from a chocolate lover!