Agave vs. Sugar: The Sweet Truth

For the last 40 years, sugar has gotten a really bad rap. I can remember when I was six years old, my father reading this book called “The Sugar Blues.” All I remember is he said I couldn’t drink Nestle’s Quick chocolate milk, eat Fruity Pebbles, or have candy anymore. I was beyond devastated! How could a six-year old in 1978 be denied SUGAR? Pixie sticks and freeze pops were the highlight of my summer days!Well father knows best and he didn’t stop there. I could only eat non-sugared cereals which meant either Chex or Rice Krispies. I also could not put sugar on the cereal to sweeten it, only honey. Let me tell you that is an acquired taste. The honey never quite melted and often stuck to the cereal. Sigh. Instead of the chocolate milk, my dad came up with the “honey milk” creation. That was the way it was until I was 18. I didn’t eat white sugar or sugared cereals again until I went away to college.

Some of you may think my father went to the extreme and I did too, at the time. However, now that I am in the health field I believe he was on to something by being strict about what I was eating . I was rarely sick as a child. I was always energized, never lethargic. And I had really good skin as a teenager. (SUGAR=ACNE).  Within the last few years many studies have surfaced about white sugar and the negative impact it has on the body. So I have begun to resort back to my old eating habits I had as a child and try to limit my white sugar intake. Of course my father, still a proponent of no “white sugar,” turned me on to agave.

I began using it in hot tea, on toast, in oatmeal and in baked goods. This new (but old) sugar substitute has become very popular but I wonder is it actually better than sugar or is it just as bad? I decided to do some research and look at the pros and cons of agave, as well as if it is truly healthier than sugar.

What is agave?

Agave nectar is a real sugar, as opposed to an artificial or non-nutritive sweetener. It has properties similar to many sugars with one important exception: its glycemic index is significantly lower. This makes it a healthier alternative to many processed AND natural sweeteners. Because agave is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar; you will not need as much.

Agave or Sugar?

Looking at the chart below, you can see that they measure up about the same to each other nutritionally. But what you are not able to see, is how they affect your body. Agave gets high marks for being low on the glycemic index (GI) rating, which means it won’t cause a spike in your blood sugar levels the way sugar does. High-GI foods like white sugar tend to make us feel hungry sooner since they are digested quickly. Therefore foods made with agave nectar may keep you feeling fuller longer than foods made with white sugar which translates to eating less.

One tbsp sugar One tbsp. agave nectar
Calories 46 60
Total Fat 0 0
Carbs 12 16
Fiber 0 1
Sugar 12 15
Protein 0 0

It is really important to read the labels and buy raw agave nectar when possible. A lot of brands of agave nectar are highly refined, containing almost 100 percent fructose, which is a higher percentage than that found in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Fructose is a sweetener known to raise triglycerides, promote belly fat, and contribute to fatty liver, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Some distributors of agave nectar have been labeling HFCS as agave nectar, so the FDA recommends looking for labels that say “hydrolyzed insulin syrup,” which they say means it is real agave. Sugar, on the other hand, is low in fructose, and high in glucose. It is easily absorbed into the bloodstream, which gives you a rush of energy. As this energy begins to wear off you find yourself craving more, but fructose will help to balance your energy levels, as well as your appetite.

Cons of Agave

If you are pregnant you should use agave with caution, as some species of agave contain anordin and dinordin steroids, which can lead to a miscarriage.

Even though agave does not spike blood sugar levels, it does make its way into the bloodstream as triglycerides. These can cause the arteries to harden, and eventually may cause heart attacks and strokes. So if you have any kind of heart problems you may want to stick with sugar.

While FDA says that hydrolyzed insulin syrup means real sugar, it has been said that its true name is “hydrolyzed high fructose insulin syrup.”   And we all are familiar with the ongoing studies around the negative impact high fructose has on our bodies.

Just like sugar, agave nectar is an addictive sweetener, and you should always use it sparingly and in moderation.

I am not sure if this is what I wanted to hear about agave, but definitely information I needed to know. Some say organic raw brown sugar or organic white sugar is still a better option than agave syrup, or artificial sweeteners. What do you think?

What is Really in Your Food

When I first decided to write a blog about health and women, my goal was to ensure women had access to all types of information that would help them make informed decisions about their health. Since I work directly in health, my hope was to be able to provide cutting edge information and information that is not generally shared with the public. This latest information I truly had to share. You are not going to want hear it, read it or know about it. But I felt compelled to share.

Earlier this week, I was out to dinner with some  public health friends from the FDA and they were casually talking about the “things” that fall into food items that are packaged in factories and plants.  They were specifically talking about baby formula and the recent baby formula Similac that was recalled because beetles were found in the products. (No doubt I will be breastfeeding)

Naturally, I am in shock over this. But then they began saying how often there are “things”  that fall into food items which factories have no control over. These are unavoidable things within a factory or a plant when processing mass quantities of items, but are also not harmful to us to eat. At this point, my mouth is wide open and I am in disbelief. “What things,” I ask. They inform me that there are “things” like insect legs and hairs that often get mixed in with the food. Immediately, I begin thinking how can I avoid any food processed in a plant or factory. Yup, that would be just about everything I consume they tell me, from cereal to pasta. My first question is does the FDA know about this and they both say yes!

Apparently, the FDA has regulations for plants and factories to ensure the sample “batches” of food that are tested are deemed edible. The FDA set these action levels because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects. Products harmful to consumers are subject to regulatory action whether or not they exceed the action levels.

So what can be done? Nothing except pray. But I just don’t think the 3-second rule is going to cut it this time. It is FDA’s position that pesticides are not the alternative to preventing food defects. The use of chemical substances to control insects, rodents and other natural contaminants has little, if any impact on natural and unavoidable defects in foods.

There you have it. I still have no words nor have I decided what my plan of action is for eating. According to my friends, I would have to literally just stop eating. All packaged (a box, a bag, a can, a jar) food goes through some form of a plant or factory.  If you want to read more about the regulations and defect levels go to this link to the FDA website: http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/sanitation/ucm056174.htm

This link also provides a listing of food items and the common defects associated with them. I am telling you now, beware of the truth. You may want to remain ignorant. Ignorance is bliss!

Eating Healthy on the Road

That’s right ladies (and a few gents who skim my blog) WE are at the halfway mark til Summer! It’s March and that means we have three months until June — the start of hot weather, shorts, and cute summer dresses. So I am sure you have all been sticking to your workout regimen since the beginning of the year, right? I hear some mumbling and a few excuses. Okay I have to admit, I too slacked off, but only a little. We are all entitled to a tiny bit of slacking, but never lose sight of your goal. Keep your mind focused on being healthy, eating healthy and thinking in healthy ways. Remember, envision the body you want and the way you want to feel; and you are halfway there.  

So, for the last 10 days I ate hotel and conference food, ugh! Which by the way, can be very heavy and rich. I am not used to eating such hearty food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I usually eat about 5-6 meals a day with lunch and dinner being moderately heavier than my snacks. I can’t eat a heavy lunch because I WILL fall asleep at my desk. I also travel a lot, so I have to be cautious about what I am eating at all of these different conferences and meetings. So let me just give a couple of tips for those who are traveling for work or attending a lot of Spring conferences:

  • Apt for the lighter meals. If you have to eat in the hotel restaurant go for the Chicken Cobb Salad (every hotel has one) with the salad dressing on the side, grilled salmon or another high protein and veggie dish.
  • Skip the dessert, bread and starch during the luncheons and dinners. Every conference has at least one of these special meal sessions. It is always either chicken or salmon with a creamy sauce and probably risotto, pasta or rice. I say eat only the meat, fish or poultry and the vegetables.  You will not feel as stuffed.
  • Say no-way to continental breakfast! Yes I know the budget is tight and it’s better to just eat the complimentary breakfast. But you are doing your body a disservice by consuming the high in sugar yogurts and pastries. Get up a little earlier, go for a walk or ride on the stationary bike in the hotel fitness center, and then hit the breakfast buffet for some protein and fiber. You will feel more energized and less hungry throughout the day.
  • Bring your own snacks for those in-between meal times and session breaks. Kashi bars, yogurt covered raisins and trail mix are much better than the hotel gift shop selection of candy bars and chips.
Do these few things and you will be sure to stick to your new year’s resolution!

Looking & Feeling Your Best in Your Little Black Dress (L.B.D.)

istockphoto_3171210_chic_boutique_incl_jpeg.jpgAlright, there are only 4 days until New Year’s Eve (if you include NYE) and believe it or not you still have time to get into that little black dress. When you are wearing a little black dress you want to accentuate those features that are going to be most noticeable in the dress — shoulders, arms, butt, and calves. These also tend to be a woman’s best features, after her personality of course. A friend of mine who is a personal trainer told me that the most amazing feature on a woman is her shoulders and women should tone them more. Naturally, I took his advice and began focusing on my shoulders when doing my strength training. He was right, of course. Nicely toned shoulders can really make you look sleek and fit.

There are many things you can do to ensure that you feel good when you put on that L.B.D.

Eat less calories, high-fat and high sugar foods. No more leftover pound cake from Christmas and eggnog. Drink nothing but water and eat lots of veggies and fish for the next few days. This light “detox” will probably do you some good from all the high caloric and sugary foods you have eaten this holiday season. Stay away from foods that will make you bloated like broccoli. This will help your tummy look less full.

A little exercise should be involved. While you may not see the results in 4 days that you would see in 4 months, exercise will at the very least give you some extra energy. Plus, your upper body can tone up fast and working out can put you in a good mood. Here are my favorite exercises for those features most noticeable in a L.B.D.

Shoulder Press – Hold your dumbbells at shoulder height with palms facing forward. Slowly push them straight up until arms are almost fully extended, pause, and return to start. Do three sets of 20.

Lunges – This is great for thighs and butt. Put your hands on hips, take a big step, bending the forward knee. Then take another step. Make sure that your upper body is straight and not leaning forward because this can hurt your back. Go for 20 yards and do 2 sets of 10 on each leg.

Squats – This exercise will tone the heck out of your butt!! The movement is like sitting in a chair with feet shoulder distance apart; make sure to keep your knees behind your toes. Do three sets of 20.

Calve Raises – Basically stand on your tippy-toes and pause at the top for one second. Do three sets of 20. There is nothing like some great calves in 3” strappy heels.

Triceps kickbacks (my ultimate favorite) – Lean forward, back straight. With elbows bent and tight to the body, hold dumbbells facing inward. Without moving the upper arm, extend the arm fully, pause and return to start. Do three sets of 20. Tip: Do this exercise in front of a mirror to ensure your back is kept straight. You do not want to strain your back.

Bicep curls – Put your arms at your sides, hold dumbbells facing frontward. Raise them to shoulder height. Pause and return to start. Do three sets of 20.

Practice your posture. As someone who stands 5’11” I have to be very conscious that I do not slouch. Make a conscious effort to stand and walk straight/upright. Also, when you do this it exudes confidence and self-assurance. Remember, you are in your L.B.D and confidence is your middle name!

If you are feeling self-conscious about your pouch or muffin top, go for the body slimmer/shaper . Love, love, love these wonderful little assets to our wardrobe underneath. Any body slimmer/shaper will do, but I prefer the all in one with the boy shorts (Spanx has a good one). Some have removable straps if you are going strapless. Slip it on and presto — instant flat stomach and less love handles!

Sparkle a little! Add a little glow to your skin and those noticeable body parts. There are a lot of body lotions that have the shimmer or gold flakes in them that can give your body that extra little touch. I love these because it really does give you a subtle shimmer. Everyone will be telling you all night what an amazing glow you have.

Last but not least, go in knowing you are going to have a great time and that you look good! Nothing trumps a positive attitude. If you do all of these things or even a few, I guarantee you will look and feel good in your L.B.D. or whatever you choose to wear on New Year’s Eve.

The Day before Indulgence…

So it’s the day before Thanksgiving and my plan was to go and workout at 6:00 a.m. but that didn’t exactly go as planned. As a matter of fact I never made it to the gym. But as a replacement I did walk up all of the escalator stairs when I got off the train this morning. In 3″ heels! Hey, that has to count for something. I am trying to get in some extra activity today, as Turkey Day quickly approaches. I am also trying to keep in perspective what I will eat tomorrow. If you are really trying to be healthy, have you ever really thought how hard that it is to do, the day before a feast? To consciously remind yourself not to overindulge on the yummy food that is going to be placed in front of you? The candied yams/sweet potatoes, collard greens, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese (my ultimate favorite) and oh we must not forget Grandma’s homemade rolls dripping with butter!! Oh now you all know that is so hard to do!! But we know it can be done. Right? I can’t hear you! That’s better. So what do we do? How do we resist the temptation of overindulging and still enjoy? Well, I am not a physician nor a nutritionist, but my expertise is in health. I would like to share my personal tips for Turkey Day or any feast. Don’t worry I am going to keep it real!

· Eat breakfast and make sure it has a good amount of protein. This is good for everyone, but especially if you have an early meal time. This will help you curb the desire to eat more than you should because you haven’t starved yourself. So often, we think we have to save up for the big feast and won’t eat anything all day. So not a good idea. All it’s doing is keeping you hungry, low on energy and cranky because you didn’t eat. Who is going to want to sit next to you during dinner?

· Have a couple of small meals/snacks if you are having a late afternoon meal. Again, it will prevent you from going crazy when the mashed potatoes and gravy hit the table. An apple with peanut butter or even a sandwich with some of that freshly carved turkey will keep you satiated until dinner time. That is, if you are allowed to have some of the turkey.

· Attempt to burn some extra calories while waiting for the feast. Go for a walk with a loved one and catch up since they may only be in town for a few days. This a great time for fellowship and to be active as a family.

· Ready to eat? Start slowly and take small portions of food. Remember the saying ” Your eyes are bigger than your stomach?” Keep that in mind. There is nothing wrong with tasting everything, just keep it in moderation. Use a small plate if it will help you from piling food on. You will be surprised how content you will feel and how great it will be not to have that overstuffed feeling. You know kind of like a stuffed turkey! Then you won’t feel so guilty about having that slice of sweet potato pie!

- If all else fails and you get caught up in the wonderful display and aroma of all of the food and lose your mind. Not to worry, there is only one thing to do, put your fork down and . . . STEP AWAY FROM THE TABLE!!! Breathe, rub your ears and say Woosahh! Then try making your plate again with about 3 scoops less of the mac and cheese.

The bottom line is, it’s okay to indulge a little, just don’t over do it. Thanksgiving is about fellowship, gratitude and sharing. And there is something about food, really good food and preparing food that brings all of these together. So enjoy the day in a healthy way!

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