To Treat or not to Treat, that is the question.
It’s the new year. Here’s our perspective on how to Treat Yourself Right in 2011. Maybe cutting out any and all treats shouldn’t be a resolution? We advocate using your own brain to determine if a treat is a judicious choice for you. This post is about how we use ours.
So I’ve argued (part 1 and part 2) that making a Paleo-ified (or at least a no grain, low sugar, dairy optional) treat could have potential benefits to someone who understands their moderation and is prudent about the compromise. As with any of our food choices it becomes a hierarchy of values. We weigh reward vs. perceived risk based on what we know (believe) about metabolism and disease promoting agents as well as our conjecture of what was eaten (and avoided) by our ancestors that contributed to vitality.
This hierarchy of values comes into play every day when mindfully eating. Decisions such as the best bang for your buck (budget Paleo), how to order when eating out (how to make the best of the worst), or what to keep in mind when considering a treat that is more Paleo-friendly arise all the time. The first two could be posts in and of themselves and we may try to explore them on their own at a later date. There is no right answer as it applies to your nutritional priority…as everyone is different. We keep grain avoidance for gut health towards the top of our list. This could be displaced by anything else that you have an individual, acute reaction to. Bottom line, we’re just trying to do the best we can while constantly evaluating what’s best in the first place. This is why we feel that a list of Paleo foods that are “approved” doesn’t do much good in the long term. Not only does it lack promoting benefits of a low to moderate carb diet or make heads/ tails of quality…it doesn’t give you reasons for those choices with which to create a lifestyle. To evaluate every instance you face in life you need principles and some understanding of the effects your food is causing: good and bad. This is the idea behind our umbrella…that knowledge in these areas will give you the ability to create your hierarchy of values and then view all foods through that scope.
I think in the Paleo world “treat” most commonly refers to a likeness of a flour and sugar based dessert (cake, cookie, brownie, etc.) or even savory dish with flour base (pizza crust, bread, pasta, crust for frying, etc.).
At least these are the ones that people get upset about copying. Nobody seems to have a huge beef with lower-carb, higher-nutrient stand ins when they don’t allude to what is generally accepted as “junk food”. I’ve never seen anyone get too perturbed over cauliflower “rice”. Being a Paleo eater certainly changes what you think of as acceptable though, and in need of a tweak. Take a nice bowl of oatmeal for example…if it were something you just loved but wanted to avoid oats (grains) you could find a substitute to give you a similar texture and flavor…while everyone else (non Paleo) in the world thinks oatmeal is the most nutritious breakfast you could eat. Mmmmm low fat! On the other side of that coin, being Paleo affords us the ability to enjoy our bacon without much guilt…but I digress. So for our purposes today I’m going to address the usual grain substitutes as well as type/quantity of sugar.
The following will try to quantify our decision making cascade as it applies to treats we make. As we really do our best to avoid grains (except for occasional rice) this takes precedence for us and is why we will consider a non-grain stunt double. High sugar is a top concern for us as well and will be a large shareholder in the concept of a “better” dessert. Many folks prefer to have the “real thing” every once in a while…and they know what they’re doing, that’s a valid strategy. But for us, for the reasons I just listed, we’re more likely to enjoy a wheat free, low sugar treat in which we control all ingredients than to partake in a wheat/ sugar bomb (though it does happen). 98% of the time it’s just not worth it and we know we can make something satisfying that much better fits our criteria and not make us feel horrible. That being said, what are more specifics about these criteria? and what are other concerns we try to keep in mind?
Low/ Moderate Carb
This one is going to go first because it will overshadow all substitute ingredients as it applies to how much…how to moderate a “treat”. We generally believe in a moderate to low carbohydrate diet for letting your body regulate blood sugar properly, avoiding crashes and chronically elevated blood glucose and its subsequent issues etc. We feel that this amount of carbs is more in line with our genetic experience (hunter gatherers believed to consume around 80g carbs per day, though there are anomalies in traditional cultures). Most treats we re-invent are very high carb and the outcome is usually lower in carbs and added sugars.
We try to keep our carbs in a moderate range of 75-150 g/day…but even less could be beneficial for you depending on your goals. I like Mark Sisson’s Carb Curve for it’s simplicity. Without even getting into “net carbs”, it’s easy to see that substituting either of these flours for wheat flour will reduce your carbs substantially. This isn’t the only reason we avoid and substitute grains though. More on that next.
With the exception of non-nutritive (fake) sweeteners…most sweeteners pack about the same carbohydrate punch. Since we believe that fake sugars are worse than keeping other sugars low…we prefer to do just that. We like subtle sweetness in our treats and will get into our values about the type and quantity in a minute.
As I said above this one ranks highly on our list of things to avoid. And we prefer to avoid gluten grains entirely. Here is a quote from Robb Wolf’s book (excerpt from Tim Ferris’ blog):
You only need to be exposed to things like gluten once every ten to fifteen days to keep the gut damaged. This can bedevil people as they “cut back on gluten” but do not notice an improvement in their overall health. I’m sorry but there is not a pink “participant” ribbon given out for doing this “almost correctly.” You need to be 100 percent compliant for thirty days, then see how you do with reintroduction.
This is case number one for us to think that gluten free/ grain free – more Paleo-ish, Paleo-ified foodstuff (I’m using the critics terms here) could be better than the “have the real thing from time to time” plan. There’s plenty of grain bashing out there. I’ll link to a few below. You’ve probably seen many of these but they are scary nonetheless. We feel that the toxins found in grains are probably the most out-of-bounds with our genetic experience and use that as case #2 to avoid them more strenuously than other Neolithic staples (like dairy, which is new but more similar to things in the Paleo framework). To be fair…the Weston A. Price camp supports sprouted grains and the data shows that traditional people were able to consume them without the same detriment we get from un-sprouted. I still feel that they are not optimal…and who’s going to sprout their grains anyway? You can buy sprouted flour but my guess from trying sprouted bread is that it’s not going to yield you anything too delicious in the first place. We look elsewhere for a wheat flour substitute.
I’ve already mentioned almond and coconut flour in the low carb bit. Alas, MDA has already written about both of these but mostly about their benefits (almond flour, almonds, and coconut flour, coconut). But are they perfect? No.
Almond Flour/ Almond Butter
I think it’s easy to overdo nuts when going Paleo. They are one of the easiest portable foods and one you can buy and eat without having to cook. The main concerns about them are usually:
1. high in pro-inflammatory omega-6
2. contain phytic acid
3. susceptible to oxidation when cooked
Once again, MDA has addressed these as well. Try finding something he hasn’t written about. His not-so-uptight view on this mirrors how I feel so here’s the link instead of me regurgitating it. And here’s a pertinent analysis of some danger with too many nuts. This one is from the omega-6 stance. The MDA link shows omega-6 content for ¼ cup of almonds and it’s pretty reasonable on the scale. So yeah, keep that in mind as to how much of your almond flour “treat” you eat along with a decent guess of your total carbs. Macadamias have even less omega-6 which makes me curious about “macadamia flour” but I don’t know about you, not sure I’d want to spend that kind of $. As far as the oxidation bit, Mark mentions how the whole nut (or ground) is better for this than the extracted oil. So don’t burn them and keep them to a reasonable amount, you’ll be taking in lots of antioxidants from the rest of your diet.
Phytic acid can bind to vitamins and minerals and affect their absorption. Soaking your nuts can reduce this (pause for laughter), here is a great deal of information on phytic acid. It seems like there may be a catch 22 here. That cooking the nuts can reduce their phytic acid while it may increase the oxidation of the polyunsaturates. Blanched almond flour usually has the skin removed as well which may cut down on the phytic acid. The WAPF article mentions that they don’t intend to make you afraid of phytic acid but aware…that it’s not necessary to completely eliminate it but keep it to reasonable levels. I have not been able to locate any solid citations yet but have read several writings stating that nuts would have been a moderated but frequent component in hunter gatherer diets…presumably those same hunter gatherers who didn’t have Western Diseases or DOC (diseases of civilization).
I think that if you’re already constrained by your carbohydrate boundaries it will be difficult to go too crazy with nuts. Your vegetables and a little fruit are going to take a decent chunk out of your carb allotment so the amount left, if filled by nuts, will only provide so much omega 6 in the first place. And if you’re eating your grass fed beef and fish etc. you’re getting a nice dose of omega 3 as well. Since you’re avoiding industrial seed oils and commercial food (industrialized meats) you’ll be dodging most other omega-6. Remember, you have to get some…it is an essential fatty acid. So if a delicious almond based treat is where they come from…you could do much worse. I think another way to think about how to moderate nuts is to just think of them as a garnish or a small side and not a whole dish. So if you’re going to make a small batch of almond flour pancakes…make them as a side to a huge omelet or something of that nature. An almond flour cookie is just a small cap to a great Paleo meal. You get what I’m saying…
There are many other sources out there…I gravitate to the MDA links for his open-minded, more laid back approach but do search further to understand the implications of these treats. Search: nuts and omega-6/polyunsaturated fats, oxidation, phytic acid.
From what I can tell coconut flour is going to be a good deal lower in polyunsaturates (omega-3 and omega-6) and phytic acid (does contain some). BUT, it’s also much lower in deliciousness in our opinion. We have a hard time making anything too tasty out of it (extremely dry) so for me it’s not even worth justifying as much. Most of the arguments from above apply as it is still a “nut” and not a fruit. We prefer to use the coconut for its oil, and I don’t plan to go into that here.
Now to the sweeteners. This is a big sticking point for Paleo framework treats…that they are a vehicle for sugar. This is of course a legitimate concern. We’ve discussed them a little from a carbohydrate standpoint already. We linked to and briefly discussed our dislike of non-nutritive (fake) sugars so for our purposes I’m going to focus in on the type and quantity concerns of natural (caloric) sweeteners. We have an article on the site already about sugar and our point of view on it, I will go a little more into our values on glucose/fructose in this post. Our last piece was a little more along the lines of “sugar is sugar”. I think that this statement works to help understand why any and all carbohydrates (starch and sugars) need to be looked at…because they will all end up as sugar by metabolism. But, to be fair…in another sense, all sugar is not created equal. For the purposes of what will be an addition to a typical treat let’s just discuss 3 sugars. Glucose, fructose, sucrose.
Glucose is commonly thought of as blood sugar and typically the first fuel for our bodies. Starch is a chain of glucose.
Fructose is usually associated with fruit and of course corn syrup, as HFCS bears the word.
Sucrose…or common table sugar is a disaccharide made up of equal parts glucose and fructose (50/50).
Now, high fructose corn syrup has gotten pretty bad press for a while now, and rightfully so…but what isn’t so forthcoming is that most commercial HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose and regular old sugar is 50% and 50% like we already said. Uh oh, those commercials that said “corn sugar” was just like regular sugar were right (your body can barely tell the difference) but what they didn’t tell you was that it really means that lots of table sugar is just as bad for you.
But the question is, can we deal with some sugar? Is the danger in the excess…and what about it is dangerous? Does it really matter (or does our body know) if it’s more “Paleo” or less refined? What about fruit?
I think it’s generally agreed upon that stone age man would have eaten seasonal fruit and maybe honey from time to time. Now, we know that a reenactment isn’t what we are after. But at least we can again think that maybe it is within our genetic experience to deal with some sugar and still avoid many maladies.
So fruit and honey may be the most quote, unquote Paleo sugars. Let’s take a look at what’s in them. If you take a look at this chart you can get an idea of the glucose/ fructose/ sucrose content of fruit and honey. Keep in mind the sucrose will end up as equal parts glucose and fructose in your body. And while yes…sugar in fruit is bound up with fiber, will come with some bonus micronutrients/ antioxidants and may be absorbed more slowly…the sugar load will still be the same. Now if sugar intake is associated with increased disease and metabolic syndrome but glucose/ starch on it’s own has not been seen to promote disease in traditional cultures…then the finger is now pointing at fructose. Science supports this. Fructose is not metabolized in the same way as glucose. It is thought to put strain on your liver (used for metabolism of fructose) which can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (a fast growing problem in the US), glycate and be inflammatory (free radicals), interfere with leptin (cause increased hunger and confused body fat regulation), and increase trigylcerides and uric acid in your bloodstream.
Sugar and HFCS take most of the blame because they are ubiquitous now-a-days and have been exploited and constantly increased in processed foods. But fruit in large amounts (bred to be maximally sweet) and fruit juice should be scrutinized as well.
We now see some evidence that we may want to weigh our fructose consumption as one of our values. First way is to make a treat and just use a lot less sugar of any kind. It’s nice to get used to subtly sweet treats that have a flavor other than sickening sweetness. So by making it ourselves we’ve just reduced all sugars. But what about fructose on its own?
This is why we’ve adamantly defended our use of small amounts of table sugar. While fruit juice or dates are fine sweeteners in small amounts…they may actually be giving you more fructose even though they are more technically Paleo. Refer to the chart again. Best case they’d be about the same as table sugar anyway. Dates are lower in fructose per 100 g than some of these other sweeteners but I wonder if you wouldn’t have to use more to get the same amount of sweetness thus making this a wash. This is where Paleo vs. not Paleo by semantics may be a gotcha. If we can agree that “grass fed beef” is not technically Paleo because it is not a game animal and is domesticated but applies and fits the square peg in the square hole that is the “Paleo framework”…could we also use this reasoning to say that maybe table sugar with a lesser fructose content (in moderation) could resemble a lesser fructose elaborated “wild” edible fruit? And that it therefore fits the Paleo framework just the same. After all we just want to keep our fructose intake low based on the science but know that a little sugar might not be worth stomping about.
And another thing…just as we say that all calories are not created equal and that they exist in a context of the macronutrient composition and the state your body is in when you consume them (example: glucose stored as fuel after a workout but stored as fat when glycogen is already full)…there is evidence that fructose may be interpreted by our bodies differently based on the context as well. This article sheds some light on the fact that fructose may be converted to glucose in an already low carbohydrate diet (and one in which you’re not overeating…which is aided by a high fat, moderate protein diet). So, the amount of total carbohydrate and calories could set the stage for regulating blood sugar and dealing with fructose in several natural ways.
1. dietary glucose management and storage as glycogen
2. gluconeogenesis/ ketosis (liver produces glucose from dietary protein while burning stored fat)
3. if liver glycogen is not already full…fructose could be converted to glycogen
* also could be dependent on activity level
4. glucose converted to fat for storage when glycogen full
5. fructose converted to fat/ triglycerides when glycogen full
It appears that it is more likely for fructose to be converted to triglycerides than it is for glucose. However, it may be that it is when liver glycogen is already full that the conversion of fructose to dangerous fat around your organs begins.
So, how much fructose? This is a tough one of course. The Mercola article mentions 15 grams a day eaten a century ago. This is at a time when heart disease was a small fraction of what it is today…could be due to other factors as well (like no trans fats and vegetable oils) but again take it for what it’s worth. This article from MDA mentions a rainforest group that could derive as much as 42% of their caloric intake from raw, wild honey. I won’t be trying that out but it speaks to the fact that we are probably equipped to deal with some fructose and it makes you wonder how much other carbohydrate and glucose they were taking in. The Weightology article linked above mentions 60-100 grams per day…though the safe amount by the rest of his article would depend on how much other sugar and calories of protein/ fat you were eating per day…and he fails to account for this in the recommendation. That sounds high to me. I estimate our intake to be around 20-40 grams of fructose per day (1 apple could be as much as 10 grams); between vegetables, dark chocolate, small amounts of fruit and our occasional treats. This is why we like for our multiple serving desserts (4-6 servings) to usually contain around ¼ cup of sugar in total. Here’s an article from Whole Health Source that recommends an amount right around our levels at 15-40 g/day. Our last blood test done in August showed both our triglyceride levels to be below 60 mg/dL (under 150 considered normal) and uric acid levels to both be below 4.5 mg/dL (healthy is considered 3-7).
*We don’t use agave nectar because it’s a very high percentage fructose.
If you’re making the large majority of your food from whole foods, keeping carbs down, eating high fat/ moderate protein, limiting fruit, and the only added sugar you get is from these treats you’re making for yourself…and you’re not gorging on them simply because they’re Paleo…I find it hard to think that this will be way too much sugar/ fructose.
You can of course go farther with anecdotal evidence from yourself. Have your blood checked a few times…observe your body fat regulation/ hunger levels etc. and see how all these indicators respond to zero sugar and then to a small amount of sugar. We can never know for sure, you have to decide for yourself if completely abstaining from these treats will give you much more benefit than including them with moderation and understanding. I’m saying it’s definitely worth thinking about but might not be something we think we should deprive ourselves of all the time or STRESS about.
If these treats help you stay on track with the lifestyle so that it’s better as a whole…and/or having them and not worrying so much relieves some of your stress. This could be a huge benefit right there. Chris Kresser just posted this advice: “and in fact I believe (as did the ancient Chinese) that in some cases it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the other way around.”
This is an axiom that hints at how stress management can play as important a role to our health as nutrition…and that we need our mental health to contribute to our physical health. I’m not going to get too much more into stress here. There is a lot of material out there so please keep searching if this peaks your interest.
Wrap it up already
Stephan Guyenet has written a post with a quote I found profound (please go there to read the excerpt from the Genjo Koan). His basic premise was that we only understand the world through the eyes of our experience yet it is infinitely variable and thus inconceivably complex. That perspective is limited by the bounds of what we know and think we know about the natural world. When we apply our already limited understanding to another item through which our understanding is equally distorted…we are really still left guessing (educated). All of this is to say: we just don’t know for sure if avoiding a small amount of sugar or almond flour will be worth it. For that matter we can’t say that about wheat or even cigarettes. However, I feel that the probability is there to compel me to moderate these things or avoid them entirely (cigarettes). By this theory of complexity and uncertainty it’s just best to take a hard look at anything too unique or precise. But at the end of the day it ultimately falls on you, based on what you know and what you think you know…to decide what it’s all worth to you.
This was what we think we know.