crate of fresh picked oranges

I've always enjoyed dessert, especially my mother’s holiday creations. But when I learned I was following my mother into pre-diabetes, I decided it was time for a change. If you’ve resolved to eat more healthy food and less added sugar in the New Year, consider my method: stop the sugar, increase the tasty healthy foods, allow yourself bits of sweet treats.

1) Stop the Sugar

Method A: Quit Cold Turkey (but give yourself a break)

Even if you don’t need to completely avoid added sugars, there are advantages to doing so. For example, a fresh Fuji apple with cinnamon begins to taste like the most wonderful dessert, and blueberries start to seem deliciously sweet. If you decide to allow yourself some conventional sweets again later, they may taste too sweet to enjoy in substantial quantities—which is just as well, for many of us.

For several months after my mother died of a heart attack related to her diabetes, when I learned that my blood sugar level was also high, I stopped eating foods containing any added sugars, honey, or syrup—cold turkey, for most sweets. It wasn’t easy, but I looked at my young children, considered our future together, and eased my cravings for sweets by using fresh squeezed orange juice, bananas, dates, and raisins as sweeteners in baked goods.

Some would argue that chopped dates and orange juice in muffins and breads are added sugars, but I didn’t go that far, since I started with unsweetened products and fresh squeezed juice—and chose to cut myself some slack! I counted the resulting muffin or piece of bread as a dessert or a serving of fruit.

Method B: Gradually Wean Yourself off Sugar (the gentler way: substitution)

I fought a battle with my morning yogurt, but I eventually won. I didn’t manage to quit using honey in my plain yogurt cold turkey, since I’ve always disliked its sour taste. So I attacked my expectations stealthily: little by little, I used less ultra-sweet honey and increasing amounts of slightly less sweet all-fruit spread, until I could eliminate the honey completely. I ended up using a lot of that delicious but expensive spread, with all its processed sugar concentrates from fruit juices. So I prepared for another struggle.

I threw all sorts of things into my yogurt: chopped almonds, cinnamon, cloves, linseed, raisins, and pieces of the sweetest fresh fruit I could find. I gradually decreased the amount of fruit spread until I could eat the yogurt comfortably without it, eventually dropping the raisins to further reduce the sugar content, and finally cutting out the almonds, since I eat those plain with sugarfree dried cranberries.

Now I can’t start my morning without a bowl of plain yogurt with cinnamon, cloves, linseed, and chopped seasonal fruit—anything from strawberries or nectarines to grapes, apples, tangerines, and/or oranges. For a special treat I may add a teaspoon of cocoa powder, a bit of vanilla, or some chopped roasted almonds, depending on what kind of fruit I’m using. I like cocoa with sweet apples, while vanilla and purple grapes or roasted almonds with orange and spices transform my unsweetened yogurt into a concoction approaching ice cream!

2.) Increase the Tasty, Healthy Foods

Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and generous servings of fruit, fish, and whole grains, with extra virgin olive oil on much of it. Use popcorn popped in olive oil with a bit of salt to stave off cravings—since it is just about as addictive as the junk we want to avoid, but far less harmful! Let’s focus a moment on what we can do with fruit, nuts, olive oil, and whole grains, because they offer a solution for cravings for sweetness.

Many articles have proclaimed the dangers of added sugar (obesity, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses), but where does the olive oil come in? Long lists of scientific studies provide evidence that extra virgin olive oil can help fight off diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and much more. So use it on your salads and in your food, and bake it into your muffins, pancakes, and breads! It works beautifully in my favorite orange juice and fruit sweetened recipes for apple orange pancakes, banana orange bran muffins, and banana bread (which is slightly less sweet and slightly easier to make than the muffins; I use olive oil and add more cinnamon and some cloves).

My search for the best healthy recipes involved plenty of trial and error. My worst disappointment: a horrible healthy pancake recipe that never rose beyond soggy mush and ended up in the garbage. So I experimented with adaptations of good old Betty Crocker’s pancake recipe for my own purposes and came up with something so much better it didn’t need syrup. So much better the kids want it every Sunday.

Another family favorite is Cranberry Coconut Almond Bars, which we end up making into coin sized bites or little balls since they don’t stick together well enough for bars. They taste like candy, although we only add dates and vanilla to their title ingredients!

3.) Allow Yourself Bits of Sweet Treats

The fruit and nut recipes I describe are not low-calorie foods; some are not even low in total sugars, considering the fruit sugars in fresh and dried fruit and fresh squeezed orange juice. So I eat them in moderation, as a treat, happy to enjoy both their pleasant sweetness and the health benefits of the fruit and olive oil. I prefer to go back to the basics of fruit and nuts rather than experimenting with the artificial sweeteners whose ability to help obese individuals and diabetics has been called into question

The beauty of stopping sugar completely is that my tongue and brain were retrained to enjoy Real Food, my fruit-sweetened baked goods tasted like dessert, and many conventional desserts (especially the syrupy Greek ones—sorry, Greeks!) were just too sweet for me to tolerate more than a bite. For those still beloved desserts such as (spicy, low sugar) olive oil orange juice cookies, a small amount is now plenty. Forget impossible diets that last a week or a month. This is something I can live with, into the New Year and beyond.

Note: Two days after I published this article, I was surprised to see that David Leonhardt had been writing about "A Month Without Sugar" for the New York Times at the same time I was writing “New Year’s Resolution: Less Sugar, More Olive Oil.” His article includes a number of the same points I make. For example, Leonhardt writes, "Choose a month this year — a full 30 days, starting now or later — and commit to eating no added sweeteners. Go cold turkey, for one month. I have done so in each of the last two years, and it has led to permanent changes in my eating habits. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. It reset my sugar-addled taste buds and opened my eyes to the many products that needlessly contain sugar.... If you give up sugar for a month, you’ll become part of a growing anti-sugar movement. Research increasingly indicates that an overabundance of simple carbohydrates, and sugar in particular, is the No. 1 problem in modern diets." 

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