7 Sweet Substitutes From a Registered Dietitian
Kids love sweets. Human beings love sweets. In fact, we can blame our ancestors and evolution for our innate sweet tooth tendencies, as evolutionary biologist and Harvard University professor Daniel Lieberman writes in The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease: “Sugar is a deep, deep ancient craving.”
In the simplest terms, our bodies were built to adore sugar, to crave and store, because biologically we know food with sugar contains energy (calories) which is necessary to outrun big animals. Plus, sugar releases dopamine. This makes us feel good, which (back in the day) made our ancestors think procreating was a good idea. And way back when, sweets were pretty hard to come by.
Now we live in a nation where people aren’t having to outrun saber-toothed tigers, but instead can go to a drive thru and order a 2000 calorie coffee drink in the morning. Our bodies haven’t evolved to process a world where sugar is readily available – in particular processed sugars. In fact, in the States we eat approximately four times the sugar our bodies can process. And we’re getting sick The recommended amount of “added” sugar, not naturally occurring sugar like we get in fruits, vegetables, grains, and yogurts, for women is 100 calories, or 6 teaspoons, and men is 150 calories, or 9 teaspoons.
So wanting sweets is natural. Beware that sugary foods should never substitute a balanced diet. And if we’re eating well, balanced diets, we won’t have as much room for the additional sugars and our cravings will probably be less. Because they’re growing and moving so much, children do have a more intense sweet tooth. Eating cake, a cookie, muffin or ice cream each week shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if you have a really active child, having a little sweet each day isn’t a problem.
But when sugars and sweets become our children’s focus and “the only thing they’ll eat,” then it’s time to step back and reassess the situation. Keeping in mind that 23 million children and teenagers are overweight in our nation, it’s time to shift from high-sugar packaged sweets to some of these healthy and delicious alternatives for after school snacks or desserts.
- Replace ice cream with fruit salad: Get in-season fruits and cut them up. Squeeze fresh oranges and drizzle with honey or top with a dollop of vanilla yogurt for a decadent dessert.
- Replace milkshakes with a fruit smoothie. For thicker smoothies, make one with yogurt. You can use vanilla flavoring, add berries, even chocolate. But by taking the ice cream out of the equation, you reduce your sugar intake.
- Reduce sugar in muffin recipes. Honestly, “muffin” is the nice way of saying “breakfast cupcake.” Harvard School of Health has a fabulous list of recipes in their “great muffin makeover,” cutting out at least 25% of sugar in normal recipes.
- Replace cakes or cookies with a waffle, French toast, or pancake: Make delicious sweet potato waffles, whole wheat French toast, or almond milk pancakes in large batches. Keep them in the freezer. When craving something sweet, warm them up and top with fresh fruit. Breakfast for dessert isn’t a bad way to go.
- Replace high fructose popsicles with Greek yogurt drops: Take one cup of unsweetened yogurt and combine with half a cup of frozen berries or fruit. Stir until everything is mixed up. Spoon them in cookie-sized drops on a baking sheet and freeze. After they’re frozen, you can put them in a Tupperware and put them back in the freezer. Take one out when you’re ready to indulge.
- Bring on fall flavors: Baked apples and pears with a little bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, butter and sugar taste divine with ice-cold yogurt for a satisfying sweet-tooth craving!
- Think beyond “a spoonful of sugar.” Our diets abound with naturally occurring sugars in milk/yogurt, kefir, fruits and grains. These foods possess other qualities and nutrients essential for health like fiber, protein and vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. So when we steer clear of the processed, simple sugars and offer delicious alternatives like trail mix with dark chocolate, peanut butter on graham crackers, dried fruit (a handful) with yogurt, chocolate and yogurt dipped fruits, we’re satisfying our sweet tooth as well as dietary needs.
Forbidding sugars and/or using them as bribes change our children’s relationships with food, creating a reward-punishment system and the idea of “good foods and bad foods.” Food should be appreciated for the properties it has and what essential nutrients it gives our bodies. Indulge in an ice cream cone or a homemade chocolate chip cookie with kids. But, for every day snacks, there are so many delicious alternatives to a chocolate bar that satisfy the sweet tooth as well as offer great nutrients for our bodies.