Eat Guiltless Desserts While Healing Your Gut

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Having a plan for your sweet tooth before taking on an elimination diet can help with feelings of deprivation and even satisfy your brain’s reward system. 

Believe it or not—it’s unnecessary to give up all delicious treats on your journey to better gut health—though many are deterred before they even begin by the idea of sacrificing sweets.

If going sweet-free is the reason you’ve been holding back on making changes to your eating patterns, some experts say having an action plan for dealing with your sweet tooth may give you the incentive to take better nutritional care of yourself.

“You can’t deprive yourself or you’ll go berserk. There’s a lot you can do,” Donna Schwenk told The Epoch Times. Ms. Schwenk is the author of several cookbooks, writes a blog called Cultured Food Life, and shares recipes—including desserts and sweet drinks—in a membership group.

Rest assured, if giving up sugar cold turkey sounds daunting, you have options. Strategies include:

  • Staying ahead of hunger
  • Choosing fruit over processed snacks and refined sugars
  • Swapping ingredients in recipes
  • Incorporating fermented foods into your diet

Understanding why you have that sweet tooth may inspire you to make changes in your diet.

The Lure of Sugar

Sugar has a strong partnership with dopamine—a neurotransmitter that comes to life when our brain feels rewarded. Dopamine is a chemical reaction that makes us feel happy, but it’s also associated with addictive behavior like gambling and drugs.

“Sugar is both toxic and abused, similar to alcohol, and should be also treated as a dangerous drug,” Dr. Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist, wrote in a 2017 article published in MetroDoctors. “Indeed, sugar meets all public health criteria for regulation.”
But there’s another reason we crave sugar, Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, assistant professor of medicine in the division of human nutrition at UCLA Health, explained in a news article. Sometimes it’s the fastest answer to the body’s problem of low energy.

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“Someone may skip meals and not eat for long periods of time, and the brain is like, ‘I need something to get my energy up,’” she said. “It’s searching and searching, and sugar always comes to mind because the body knows it’s the fastest way to get energy.”

However, that’s based, in part, on inputs we’ve given our brain—something we can change when lowering or eliminating sugar consumption. It’s also important to realize that we’ve been conditioned to crave sugar due to the many ways it’s added to processed foods.

“They know that sugar and caffeine are addictive,” Dr. Surampudi said of the food industry. “They do this on purpose.”

Sugar’s Connection to Gut Health

Lowering sugar can have benefits on overall health—a process that starts in the gut.

Too much sugar can threaten the integrity of the intestinal barrier, which in turn may increase gut permeability, and cause gut microbiota dysbiosis. That essentially means that sugar can change the makeup of gut microbes and often leads to a loss of beneficial bugs, which protect the gut barrier and boost your overall immunity.

Thus, sugar is one potential cause of chronic diseases.

According to a 2021 study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, sugar has been linked to obesity, cardiovascular disorders, poor oral health, metabolic syndrome, chronic inflammation, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, kidney dysfunction, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, among others.

Twenty years ago, Ms. Schwenk was prediabetic after a taxing pregnancy that was a wake-up call for her to take her health more seriously. Her sister has Type 1 diabetes, so she is familiar with the unpleasant effects of uncontrolled blood sugar.

“I learned a lot from that and curing my own problem, which diet and exercise can do in a hurry. It’s a cry for help when your body gets those problems,” Ms. Schwenk said. “There’s a reason you have Type 2 diabetes. It’s basically your own fault. I knew how to fix it.”

Simple Swaps

Fortunately, reversing symptoms doesn’t have to mean never indulging in tasty treats. Ms. Schwenk offered tips for ingredient swaps that are more gentle on the gut and overall health:

  • Yogurt blended with frozen fruit as a homemade “ice cream.”
  • Einkorn flour, an ancient wheat, can be used in place of regular whole wheat flour in many recipes. It provides a multitude of health benefits without raising blood sugar.
  • Sweeten food with dates, allulose, coconut sugar, or monk fruit instead of sugar.
  • Chocolate chips sweetened with dates are available at many stores and online.

Kat Owens, a certified functional nutritional therapy practitioner, told The Epoch Times she’s not overly worried about sugar—unless her client is dealing with an overgrowth of Candida, a type of fungus that specifically feeds and proliferates on a diet with high sugar.

“I’m personally not as concerned about sugar with gut health. My perspective is you can improve the quality of the ingredients you are using,” she said. “A long fermented sourdough cookie makes the flour more digestible and adds nutrients.”

Other swaps include using high-quality dairy rather than nut milks, which can include a lot of additives that are aggravating to the gut. Sometimes people who are avoiding dairy can make gut problems worse by using low-quality, processed substitutions, she said.

Coconut milk is her preference for a non-dairy alternative over oat or almond milks.

Additionally, Ms. Owens said eating high amounts of seeds, nuts, lectins, and oxalates can be problematic for those struggling with digestive problems. Chia seed puddings and bean-based “brownies” are often promoted as healthy alternatives, but too much fiber too suddenly can cause distress.

In fact, she often cuts these things out of the diet before addressing sugar.

Enjoy What You Have

“Sometimes a really good dessert for me is yogurt with fruit, honey, or maple syrup on it,” Ms. Owens said. “Even just fruit is a really good dessert and can be really sweet. Cutting up an apple or mango or something can be a good dessert.”

Dr. Surampudi noted that eating smaller meals throughout the day can be a mindful way to keep blood sugar stable and avoid the scenario where the brain is desperate for sugar.

Ms. Schwenk usually makes something sweet for her family on the weekends. She said learning to prepare recipes from scratch eliminates problematic ingredients and puts you in control of the type and amount of sugar. Plus, you can even add the kind of ingredients that are good for the gut—like yogurts, kefir, and fruit.

When baking with sprouted flour and allulose, Ms. Schwenk noted she’s often more quickly satiated. “I swear, I can only eat one cookie,” she said.

Sweet and Healthy Recipes

The following recipes are courtesy of Cultured Food Life.

Sprouted Graham Crackers

You can buy sprouted flour at your health food store or make your own. The fermentation process adds nutrients and makes baked goods better for your body. (Courtesy of Donna Schwenk)
You can buy sprouted flour at your health food store or make your own. The fermentation process adds nutrients and makes baked goods better for your body. (Courtesy of Donna Schwenk)
Ingredients

  • 2 cups sprouted flour (sprouted spelt flour is at most health food stores or Amazon)
  • 1/4 teaspoon Celtic sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 5 tablespoons butter—melted
  • 2–4 tablespoons water—spring or filtered with minerals. Add enough to make a ball that is not sticking to touch

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
  2. Mix all dry ingredients.
  3. Add honey, butter, and water until a ball is formed.
  4. Roll out onto a buttered or parchment-lined baking sheet using a rolling pin.
  5. Score into 16 crackers with a knife and prick with a fork.
  6. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, depending on how crispy you like them.

Chocolate Birthday Bars

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons coconut sugar, or date sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1⁄2 cup chocolate chips made from dates (available online and in stores)
  • 1⁄2 cup dates—finely chopped
  • 1⁄2 cup walnuts—chopped
  • 3⁄4 cup coconut—shredded
  • 1 can coconut milk—full-fat
  • 1 1⁄2 cups sprouted graham cracker crumbs—grind into crumbs in a food processor or blender

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease an 8-inch square pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs, coconut sugar, and melted butter until well blended. Press mixture into pan.
  3. Sprinkle the dates, coconut, nuts, and chocolate chips evenly over the top of the graham cracker mixture.
  4. Open the coconut milk can and stir till combined. Pour the coconut milk over top of the graham cracker crust and toppings.
  5. Place in the oven and bake for 33 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for 10–15 minutes to firm up.
  6. Then, place it in the fridge to firm up more, cut it into squares, and enjoy. I like to store this in the refrigerator, although it really doesn’t last long enough after everybody starts eating them!

No-Bake Kefir Apple Cookies

Prebiotics—apples, nuts, seeds, and oatmeal—in the cookies feed the gut's good bacteria. (Courtesy of Donna Schwenk)
Prebiotics—apples, nuts, seeds, and oatmeal—in the cookies feed the gut’s good bacteria. (Courtesy of Donna Schwenk)
Ingredients

  • 2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon allspice
  • 2 tablespoons flaxseeds
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons walnuts chopped
  • 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
  • 1⁄2 cup nut butter—almond, peanut, cashew, any of these will work
  • 1⁄4 cup coconut oil—melted
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1⁄4 cup kefir—dairy or non-dairy kefir both will work
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1⁄4 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup apple grated

Instructions

  1. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the oats, cinnamon, allspice, flax seeds, salt, walnuts, and almonds until well combined.
  2. Stir together nut butter, coconut oil, honey, kefir, and vanilla extract, and then add to the oat mixture and mix thoroughly.
  3. Add grated apples and raisins to the oat mixture, and mix together thoroughly.
  4. Place a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and drop by spoonfuls onto paper. Refrigerate for an hour until firm.
  5. Store the cookies in the refrigerator or the freezer in a sealed container.

Berry Instant Ice Cream

Blueberries and cranberries are loaded with quercetin, an anti-inflammatory food that's especially good for seasonal allergies. (Courtesy of Donna Schwenk)
Blueberries and cranberries are loaded with quercetin, an anti-inflammatory food that’s especially good for seasonal allergies. (Courtesy of Donna Schwenk)

Servings: 2 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup blueberries—frozen
  • 1 cup bananas—frozen, cut into ½-inch chunks
  • ½ cup cranberries—frozen
  • ⅔ cup kefir
  • ½ teaspoon allulose—optional

Instructions

  1. Place the frozen fruits, kefir, and sweetener in a food processor and pulse until creamy. If the fruit gets stuck, open the processor and scrape down the sides.
  2. Serve immediately or place in a bowl in the freezer to firm up for 30 minutes.

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