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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Almond Butter Brownies (Vegan, Gluten-Free, Refined Sugar-Free) + How Sugar Is Wreaking Havoc & What To Do About It

I had a completely different blog post planned for today but I decided to switch it up last minute because this simple and tasty almond butter brownie recipe is just too good to keep to myself any longer. They really are decadent... in the best guilt-free way. Plus, I thought it'd be the perfect opportunity to dive into the sugar issue.

I have struggled to eliminate refined sugar from my diet over the past few years so much so that I even cut out fruit sugar for a time just to detach myself from the effects all types of sugar had on my physical, mental and emotional health. Whether it was raw honey or high fructose corn syrup, I had to cut it all out and treat them the same because no matter if it was unrefined or refined, they both had the same effect on my overall well-being. I had been reliant on it for so many years.

When I decided it was time to add natural sugars back into my diet, I was unsure how I'd go about enjoying dessert from time to time while still eating a clean, mostly plant-based diet. Fortunately, I've found tasty alternatives that don't disrupt my clean eating efforts. Even though healthier desserts should still be eaten in moderation, it's a relief to know that I don't ever have to feel like I'm missing out or worse, feel tempted to eat something that will make me bloated, drained and sick later. I now have healthier and tastier options. :-)

Understanding the health ramifications of excess sugar consumption is crucial. Centuries ago, the average amount of sugar consumed was 4 pounds a person per year. Now we consume over 140 pounds a person per year, and about 22 teaspoons a person per day. It's no surprise that Americans are sicker than ever before. Long-term consumption of excess sugar is linked to diabetes, heart disease, yeast overgrowth, autoimmune diseases, obesity, depression, and cancer. Cancer researcher, Don Ayer, PhD, says, "Data supports the general hypothesis that cancer cells are addicted to glucose and that, by restricting glucose metabolism, one can stop their growth." According to this infographic demonstrating 14 facts about sugar, "the American Dietetic and Diabetic Associations claim that increased sugar consumption is the leading cause of degenerative disease."

You see, our ancestors consumed naturally-occuring sugars present in fruit and starchy vegetables (squash, yams, sweet potatoes), in other words, whole foods, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. So the sugar was digested slowly and provided energy for a longer period of time. Biologically speaking, we are designed to desire a little bit of sugar due to the lactose (milk sugar) in breast milk. The trouble is that our bodies were not designed to process the outrageous amount of added sugar we consume today. It's true, we need sugar for energy, but the difference between then and now is that our ancestors burned it right up. Americans live a much more sedentary lifestyle in this day and age, therefore any excess sugar is converted to and stored as fat and causes inflammation in the body. We're suffering the consequences of going against nature. 

Many studies have found that sugar may be addictive. I've experienced it firsthand. You binge, have withdrawals, crave and rinse, lather and repeat, just like drug addiction. There was a fog that overcame me when I ate sugar. It made me want to eat everything sugary in sight. I felt light and happy temporarily but then when it wore off, I felt down and craved more sugar to give me that same euphoric feeling the sugar high gave me, only to crash again. In the study, scientists found that sugar causes chemical changes in the brain the same way that cocaine and heroin do. I guess there's no coincidence that cocaine and sugar look quite similar, eh? Also, just like drugs, sugar stimulates the brain's reward/pleasure center causing the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes sugar all the more appealing and addictive.

Typically, when we think of sugar we think of a candy bar or cookies or ice cream. But refined sugar is hidden in everything, even sneaked into the least suspecting foods such as bread, sauces, cereal, yogurt, condiments, and salad dressings. Food manufacturers bank on the fact that we are addicted to sugar, so much so that it goes by a wide array of names such as: beet sugar, cane syrup, corn sweeteners, concentrated fruit juice, dextrose, fructose, glycerol, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, malt, malt barley, maltose, malt syrup, rice malt, sorbitol, sucrose, turbinado - and those are just a few of its many aliases. So beware! That's why it's always best to make most of your meals, strictly limit or eliminate refined or added sugars and eat as closely to a plant-based diet as possible. Also remember to avoid simple carbohydrates (refined starches), also known as sugars, such as white flour, white rice and white bread, which spike your blood sugar and deplete your energy. The best sugar substitutes to use in moderation are stevia, raw coconut nectar or coconut crystals, and organic pure maple syrup.

If you're sensitive to sugar, gradually cut out all sugars (even fruit) for awhile. For me, doing this helped to relieve and eliminate candida symptoms including acne, dermatitis, and other yeast related issues. Sugar is sugar, whether unrefined or refined. All sugar feeds on yeast so be wary of that. If you're trying to avoid a deeper issue by eating sugary foods to temporarily numb the pain, try to pinpoint those issues and deal with them first. 

Eliminating hidden added sugars from breakfast, lunch and dinner, including sodas and commercial fruit juices (the worst offenders), and allowing yourself a small amount of sugar in dessert is your best bet. As David Katz, MD, says, "you can subtract grams and grams of sugar out of your diet without ever touching dessert. You can systemically reverse-engineer the damage the modern food supply is doing to your body by simply making better choices." You don't have to get rid of every bit of sugar, but now you have the ability to make more informed decisions. And remember, it's about progress, not perfection, which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, "what you do everyday matters more than what you do every once in awhile."

Enjoy these brownies as an occasional treat or take to a party or family gathering. They'll never suspect that they're vegan, gluten-free & refined sugar-free. ;-)

Almond Butter Brownies
YIELD: 8 servings

INGREDIENTS
• 1 cup raw almond butter
• 3/4 cup coconut sugar
• 1 egg equivalent of Ener-G egg replacer or 1 flax egg *See note
• 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
• 1/2 tsp sea salt
• 1/4 tsp baking soda
• 1/2 cup dark chocolate (best option - at least 70% cacao), chopped or Enjoy Life's dark chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Line a small (8x8 or 8x6) baking dish with parchment paper.
3. Combine all of the ingredients, except the chocolate chunks, in a bowl and mix well.
4. Fold in the chocolate chunks and spoon into the baking dish.
5. Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown.
6. Remove brownies from the oven and cool in the pan for 45 minutes before cutting or eating. **This step is important! Do not touch or cut them, as tempting as it will be. The only way they won't fall apart is to let them completely cool and firm up.

NOTES
• A flax egg is made by mixing 1 Tbs ground flaxseed with 3 Tbs warm water. After mixing, let it sit for 10 minutes to thicken, and then add in.
• The brownies can be frozen but they didn't stand a chance being frozen in my house... we gobbled them up too quickly and I'm sure you will too!

Oh, also, I leave for Colorado this weekend. Weeee! :-) Sayonara Texas heat! Anyway, I was going to try to schedule for a post to go up while I was gone but it's not looking like that's going to happen. I promise I have some really awesome posts coming up. I was inspired today to write a post about how to stick to your healthy eating habits while traveling. I'm currently in the process of preparing to make sure I don't fall too far off the wagon. Preparation is everything!

I'm getting a bit off track here but I hope you all have a beautiful week and that you take time to breathe, slow down and relish in the ordinary moments of each day. All of the external circumstances going on around us are ever-changing and sometimes, okay let's be real, most of the time, we lose sight of what's important as we try to keep up with the demands we pile on ourselves. Take care of yourselves. Treat yourself with love, just like you'd treat a family member or friend - it all starts with you. You cannot possibly be your best self at work and in your relationships if you neglect yourself. That's how resentment develops.

That tangent came out of nowhere. Actually, it was probably harbored deep down within me and was screaming out to be expressed because in all actuality, I'm the one who needs to take that advice for myself.

Until next time! <3

"There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly live." Dalai Lama

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