As a classically trained pastry chef and athlete, there’s a lot of sweetness in my world. Not only because I get to say those two things in the same sentence, but because I confront sweet cravings, sweeteners and an abundance of sweet treats as part of my life and work. This sounds terrifying to some. I think it’s sweet.
I’ve dedicated 10 years of my culinary career to working predominantly with athletes in the sports nutrition and wellness spaces. It’s challenged me to fuse my expertise in the alchemy of cooking with an understanding of how bodies and brains strive for greatness. As a result, my approach to cooking, and eating, speaks not only to the nutrition in our foods but also the emotional, physical and psychological value in what we eat.
This is what I’ve come to know and respect about sweet cravings, sweet flavors, sweet treats and sweeteners in my world.
FLAVOR IS A FUNCTION. SWEET IS SOOTHING.
Rather than studying nutrition or dietetics, I’ve found the study of Ayurvedic medicine resonates deeply with my experience as an eater and chef. This ancient practice teaches that the way we eat for optimal performance can’t only be governed by nutrients or by examining our foods as a sum of their parts. Instead, we must consider the intrinsic, whole, subliminal and seasonal value of our foods.
Our bodies crave the foods we need to complete our basic functions to the best of our abilities. And, in times of stress — whether that’s due to anxiety or a challenging physical effort — sweet foods soothe us. But, sweet foods aren’t limited to cakes and cookies. Sweet foods are also carrots and grains, beets and apples … and, of course, cookies.
As an athlete in the middle of a hard day’s effort and craving something sweet, it’s easy for me to abide; I know the carbohydrates in that sweet thing are valuable physiologically, and the sweet flavor can help my emotional and mental state balance the task at hand.
I’m never going for a ride or a run because I ate a piece of cake. And I’m never eating cake because I went for a ride or run and “earned it.” Just by being a person in the world, striving to do my best, that cake is all mine.
NOT ALL SWEETENERS ARE CREATED EQUAL
As a pastry chef, there is a whole world of sweet ways for me to make up a treat. All involving some kind of refined or unrefined sugar, or sweetener, each with different virtues.
Refined sugars are sweeteners no longer in their natural state. A prime example is granulated cane sugar; a sweetener that’s been heated, stripped of nutrients and bleached to appear bright white, thus producing creamy white pastries. Instead of this, I embrace evaporated cane syrup, coconut sugar and other granulated sugars. These sweet products have been granulated to make them easier to use. Even maple syrup has been refined a bit from its natural state.
Refined sugars are often found in large, hidden amounts in packaged and processed foods. But instead of banning refined sugar, I’ve decided to forego packages and processed foods in my kitchen. I make my sweet treats and a conscious decision on what sweeteners to employ in each.
There are good reasons — both as an athlete and pastry chef to use refined sugar. From a culinary perspective, if I want to make a candy, cake or cookie with a specific texture, a granulated sweetener may be necessary. So, I would choose a product such as evaporated cane sugar, coconut sugar or turbinado sugar. Sometimes, I can choose ingredients such as maple syrup, dates or honey. But it all depends on what I want that ingredient to do for my food.
For my body, there are different reasons to use granulated sugars as well. Granulated sugars are easy for our bodies to absorb as glycogen when we’re working hard. An important fact to understand when we need fast energy. In fact, a bit of granulated sweetener added to electrolyte drinks can help our bodies to rehydrate faster. If our bodies aren’t properly hydrated, we can’t recover from the effort, expel waste products, or meet our weight-loss goals. Understanding this uncommon science has made me more open-minded about the ingredients and energy sources I choose to fuel my hard-working body and brain.
EMBRACING SWEET CRAVINGS
Before culinary school, I was training 28–30 hours a week as a professional endurance athlete, competing in ultra-distance events worldwide. I was craving sweet things all the time because my workouts were stressful, extremely energy-intensive, and mentally exhausting. But I quickly learned that when my brain told me I wanted a slice of cake, there was something else at play.
Foods that taste sweet help us to rebuild tissues and calm our nerves. After a big day of adrenaline-pumping cycling, running, hiking or when we’re experiencing something emotionally or physically challenging, our bodies will ask for a sweet flavor to rebalance. When we experience this craving, we most often think of desserts, candy and sweet treats but eating fruits, grains, natural sugars, milk and vegetables like pumpkin, carrots and beets can answer the call for a sweet treat.
So, when I have a sweet craving, I typically think about the last thing I ate. If it was a well-rounded meal filled with whole grains, healthy proteins, lots of vegetables and healthy fats, then I pick a wholesome sweet treat. If I haven’t had a well-rounded meal, I know my body is asking for something grounding, hearty and nutrient-rich. I’ll make a meal that includes sweet foods such as carrots, beets, cooked fruits or grains. And, when the spirit calls, I’ll have a slice of cake.
SMART, SWEET SWAPS
If you’re learning to navigate your own sweet cravings, these swaps could be helpful:
- At breakfast: If you wake up craving something sweet, skip the store-bought jam or donut. Instead, make yourself a grounding bowl of oats. Cook them in your favorite milk and add a small drizzle of maple syrup, cooked fruits and maybe a bit of coconut.
- At lunch: Skip your astringent salad and roast carrots, beets or pumpkin. Enjoy with a showering of fresh herbs and ghee.
- At dinner: If you’ve had a long, hard day and feel like eating a pint of ice cream for dinner, don’t. Instead, make yourself a hearty bowl of whole grains. Sauté kale or spinach, and stir in some roasted pumpkin or butternut squash.
- At snack time: Instead of eating a big slice of cake, a cookie or candy, try eating unsweetened dates as a treat.
- When it’s time to celebrate: Enjoy that slice of cake, pie or cookie. Everything is good for us in moderation. Feeling that we’re living and enjoying our lives fully is also an important part of meeting weight-loss and wellness goals.
THE MORAL OF MY STORY
The more I embraced sweet cravings as part of my body’s natural balance, welcomed sweet treats and foods in all forms into my life, and took it upon myself to select specific ingredients to fulfill my sweet needs, the sweeter life became.
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