Listen, you guys know that I love me a good slice of cake. I’m a firm believer that delicious food represents more than mere nourishment– it’s a means of provision and hospitality, a medium for creativity and skill, a backdrop for community and camaraderie, and it is one of the most universal sources of pleasure life has to offer.
But let’s talk facts. There are things we, as members of modern societies, eat regularly that need to be moved to the “eat occasionally” lists. I know you know that added sugar is one of those things. To give a little perspective– the American Heart Association recommends a daily intake of about 6 teaspoons a day of sugar (if you a lady) and about 9 teaspoons a day (if you a dude). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends that no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake comes from added sugars. An NPR article from 2016 has quoted that the average American takes in about 22 teaspoons of sugar daily- far above the recommended limit, no matter how you spin it. For some more stats and graphics on how we’re doing on our sugar consumption as a nation, go here (spoiler alert- we’re not doing well).
Why do we overeat sugar? The blame has been passed onto a lot of things, from individual factors such as evolutionary instinct and human response to stress, to the food environment which includes big food companies and even the “traditional” thinkings of health professionals and nutritionists (for shame!). Succinctly put, studies have affirmed the addictive nature of sugar and our instinctual drive to seek it out for energy, survival, and pleasure. On top of that, sugar sells, and food companies know this. The low-fat diet craze of the 1970’s and 80’s in the U.S. led to the replacement of fat with sugar as the major taste enhancer for “diet foods.” Now what we’ve got is a food landscape in which added sugar, often disguised on food packaging labels by one or more of its aliases (ever heard of high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin?), has become a ubiquitous and an expected component.
Why is this a problem? Without going into too much biochemistry, when we eat more sugar than our body needs, an excess of the hormone insulin is produced; insulin acts to store sugar in the cells, including fat cells. Simple carbohydrates (think white, refined carbs) are digested and absorbed much quicker than a complex carb (think brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains) and therefore lead to a faster rise and, subsequently, a faster crash of sugar in the blood. This leads to a roller coaster-like effect in which the body tells us to consume more food and more frequently. Over time, we end up with weight gain and a myriad of metabolic health issues like diabetes and heart disease.
What should we do about it? The simple answer is to eat less added sugar– something closer to the recommended limit of 10% of our daily calories, or 6-9 teaspoons per day. But we all know this is so much easier said than done, largely because many of the foods that are most convenient- and most appealing at times of stress, boredom and celebration- are processed foods high in added sugar. Knowing this, one practical way to reduce your daily sugar consumption is to stick as much as possible to a “real food,” or whole food, diet– one high in ingredients and foods that have had as little processing done to them as possible. This means whole grains, fresh (and as much as possible- local) fruits and vegetables, responsibly raised meat and animal products, raw or simply roasted nuts and seeds. You might find that, in an attempt to make fresh vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and meats taste good, you have to add things like condiments and dressings, which are common sources of hidden sugars. My professional recommendation? Make your own dressings and sauces! Home prepared foods are not only healthier and fresher, they also make eating so much more rewarding and satisfying. Worried about the sugar content in certain whole foods, like fruit? Well, the sugar in fruit does break down into the same components as those from sugar in, say, a candy bar. But with the fruit comes a whole host of other good nutrients- fiber, vitamins, minerals- which not only gives fruit more “bang for the buck,” but also helps to slow down its digestion and absorption into cells. Food in its natural state is designed for optimal breakdown in and nourishment to our bodies, guys. Is this not amazing???!?
My last little tidbit here is that I want to make clear that I have no interest in a completely sugar-free lifestyle. In fact, I would recommend against an overly strict avoidance of sweets for many reasons- one being that strict bans can often cause “rebounds” of overeating and bingeing. Also, I do believe that sweets eaten as treats for a special occasion are one way of simply enjoying life! If you’re going to eat a cookie, eat a damn good cookie– just don’t eat one every day! You should also know, my faithful readers, that I am preaching to myself here. We’re in this together, guys. There is a balance to be struck here, and I know that we can find it!
So here’s to taking back our health with a whole foods diet. I’ve made us some sweet little treats made with the most delicious of ingredients and no added sweeteners (trust me, the dates are so sweet that any added sweeteners would probably ruin these). These little guys are reminiscent of Lara bars, but they come packaged like cute little truffles. They are incredibly easy to make and serve as the perfect non-special occasion treat!
raw almond joy bites
12-14 pitted dates
1 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup cacao powder or cacao nibs (the nibs will give you a crunchier texture than the powder) + more cacao powder for dusting, if desired
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut or coconut flakes (again, the difference is just in texture) + more shredded coconut for dusting, if desired
1-2 Tbsp unsweetened almond milk (I used Califia Farms‘ no-sugar-added toasted coconut flavor)
1/2 tsp almond extract, optional
1/2 tsp coconut extract, optional
1. Pulse almonds, cacao nibs, and coconut flakes in a food processor until you get a coarse meal. *If using cacao powder and/or shredded coconut rather than the nibs/flakes, I would pulse the almonds alone first!
2. Add dates, and pulse until blended.
3. Add coconut milk and extracts, pulse until the mixture comes together and can be formed into shape.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll out tablespoon-sized balls with your hands and place on the sheet. Roll the balls in cacao powder or shredded coconut.
5. Put the balls in a sealable container and refrigerate for at least an hour (you can eat them immediately, but I find that refrigerating leads to a more dense and satisfying texture!)