Sugar is the new Undesirable No. 1. You can't open a browser window without seeing that sweets are making us fat, sapping our energy, disrupting our sleep, and messing with our hormones.
Well, that is all true. Processed sugars are detrimental to our health, no question. The overabundance of our modern diet in general, and sugars in particular, overburdens our body and our digestive system, leading to digestive upset (including constipation, loose stools, gas, bloating, heartburn), fatigue, brain fog, joint pain, skin problems, and more.
So, if sweet foods and processed sugars cause all these problems, why do we continue to consume them? Well, because they're delicious, that's why. More importantly, why do we crave sweet foods, even though they appear to cause us no end of grief?
In Chinese herbalism, the sweet flavor is associated with the earth element, which is most closely correlated to our digestive system. This flavor is nourishing and strengthening to the body; in East Asian medicine, we refer to this as 'tonifying'. This is why people, and children in particular, crave sweets. We know intrinsically that it's beneficial to us and helps to bolster our body.
However, as with all good news, there's a catch here. This tonifying effect of sweet flavors only works in moderation. It nourishes the body, but too much can quickly bog the digestion down. If you already suffer from weak digestion, your body will not be able to process these flavors and produce what we refer to as 'dampness'. This manifests physically in increased fat deposits (especially abdominal fat), loose or sticky stools, acne, lethargy, or feeling physically weighed down in your body.
In a Chinese herbal formula, we use a combination of flavors in order to help the body incorporate the entire architecture of the formula, so the sweet flavor is balanced by other flavors such as acrid, bitter, salty, and sour. These combinations help the body to process and metabolize as well as nourishing. This is a concept that we can mirror in our diets by incorporating the sweet flavor into a balanced, whole-foods diet.
When I'm talking about the sweet flavor in this context, I am emphatically NOT referring to the processed sugars we find in pastries, candy bars, sodas, etc. Instead, I'm talking about the naturally sweet flavor found in foods and naturally occurring sugars. Obvious examples are fruits and berries, as well as natural sweeteners like maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, and honey. However, it is not only these foods that are described as being sweet. In East Asian nutrition, when something has a 'sweet' flavor, it is not just the up front sweetness of an orange, foods like onions have a flavor profile that is pungent and sweet (and think how they taste caramelized!). Some other foods in East Asian nutrition that are ascribed a sweet flavor include different varieties of beans and nuts, most meats, rice and other grains, butter or ghee, coconut and coconut oil, other oils and fats, cucumber, cabbage, eggs, mushrooms, parsnips, brussels sprouts, and others. These foods and flavors, associated with the earth element, are all nourishing to the body, muscle tissue, gut, and even the cell walls. Incorporating these foods as part of a balanced diet and flavor profile is an integral part for establishing your body's foundation.
While I think that the sweet flavor can be a vital component of our diet, I do not advocate overindulgence in fruits. In fact, I think that is a common mistake that people make when they transition to a whole foods diet. Say it with me: veggies first! Vegetables are going to give you the biggest micronutrient bang for your nutritional buck. There are vegetables that do bring that sweet flavor to your palate (think yams, parsnips, celeriac, celery, asparagus, etc.), and if you're really craving the sweet-forward flavor, think about incorporating a small amount of raisins or dried fruit. If you overindulge in them at the beginning (ahem, I speak from experience), don't beat yourself up over it and don't give up! Just take note of what brought the craving on (maybe stress or emotional upset, maybe boredom -- we all have food triggers), and also notice how your body feels afterwards. Do you feel more tired? Do you notice some increased acne on your face? Any digestive upset? This is all good information on how your body reacts to an overload of sugar.
If you feel like you need to hit the reset button on your relationship with sugar, I think that cutting it out completely for a period of time is a good way to go. Programs like Whole30 are a great way to do this. After some time away from it, you'll find that not only are you more sensitive (and less appreciative) of heavily sweetened, processed foods, but you'll also notice that you'll feel better in your body and crave even natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup less. Establishing a healthy relationship with sweet flavors can have profound effects on your body and mind. You'll notice that you feel more energized, sleep better, have less pain, and will even notice changes in your skin. It's an easy, effective, and affordable way to start taking charge of your health through your diet and lifestyle.
Andrea Lane is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist, Autoimmune Paleo Coach, and certified Pilates & GYROTONIC(r) trainer in Portland, Oregon. Her practice particularly focuses on treating autoimmune disease, reproductive health, and pediatrics. She is passionate about maintaining good health through a whole-food diet, mindful movement, and meditation. When she is not practicing, she loves to cook, listen to podcasts, read her way out from under the small mountain of books she's accumulated, and cater to her cats' every whim.