Tips for having a healthy relationship with sweets

By Chef Ann Ziata

As a natural foods chef who also loves to bake, I often get asked about “healthy desserts.” Do they even exist? Which is best: whole wheat banana bread, a raw date-nut cacao truffle, or a baked apple?  I say, choose whichever sounds most appealing to you. What I’ve found is when eating “healthy desserts,” the relationship we have with food is just as important as the ingredients. So before you read the nutrition label, check in with your own label first. I’ve broken it down into three ways we can improve our relationships with sweets physically, emotionally, and holistically.

Physically: Reset your palate

  1. Cut back on the white stuff. This may be obvious but, if you haven’t already, wean yourself off white sugar (even if it’s organic). I once heard the taste of white sugar described as “an entire orchestra playing one note,” which is hauntingly accurate of its harshly sweet taste. It’s also incredibly addicting, so cut back gently. If you like your coffee sweet, instead of switching to black, gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use over the course of a week or so. It takes only 10 days to reset the human palate and your body will soon appreciate the more nuanced, natural sweetness found in real, whole foods.
  2. Increase the amount of whole grains and cooked starchy vegetables in your diet. Not only do they provide sweetness, but their complex carbohydrate and B-vitamin content make them extremely comforting and relaxing to the body, which decreases the desire for sugary desserts like cupcakes. Grains to consider include oatmeal, polenta, and whole wheat pasta; vegetables include yams, winter squash, and beets.
  3. Use natural sweeteners. The complex flavors of maple syrup, honey, and maple sugar are all naturally satiating, meaning that after the flavors hit your palate, the body pretty quickly registers that it’s had enough and doesn’t want more food. That “one-note” taste of white sugar provides no satiety, so our bodies crave more and more.

Emotionally: Honor desserts for what they are – a treat to celebrate life

  1. Desserts are meant to be tasted and enjoyed, not eaten for nutritional sustenance. Don’t cram kale and protein powders into your desserts so you can justify having cookies for lunch. In order for the vegetables to be properly digested, your taste buds need to detect their inherent bitter and astringent flavors. These flavors stimulate digestive juices, and if we don’t taste them, our bodies don’t release the hormones needed get the metabolism going. (I won’t even get started about protein powders; one of the biggest causes of sweets cravings is from inadequate protein intake. Eat balanced meals with whole grains, beans, responsibly-raised animal protein, and good-quality fats, not just green juice, carrot sticks, and salads.)
  2. When you do have dessert, own it. Practice choosing food from a place of power, rather than feeling like a victim to your cravings. Sit down, breathe, pour yourself some tea, and savor every bite. Pay attention to your thoughts – are they full of pleasure and gratitude (“Mmm! This is heavenly.”), or of shame and guilt (“Ugh, I have no self-control, I shouldn’t be eating this.”)? The energy you put into your food is going to be reflected in how your body absorbs it. Stress raises cortisol, the hormone responsible for increasing inflammation and visceral fat, while feelings of joy and relaxation decrease it.

Holistically: Look at the big picture

  1. Taste the sweetness of life. Indulge in the pleasures of life by spending time outdoors, enjoying the company of friends, and doing what you love. Spoil yourself by taking a warm bath or buying yourself flowers.
  2. Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep and keep hydrated. It doesn’t matter how well you eat, you can’t feel great if you are tired, dehydrated, or stressed.
  3. Listen to your body. What does it really want? Do you feel fulfilled in your life, career, relationships, living arrangements, and daily schedule? Cravings are a sign of imbalance. Ask yourself the big questions and trust your body’s answers.

Breakfast as self-care

By Chef Ann Ziata

“How you start your day is how you live your day. How you live your day is how you live your life.” Louse L. Hay

If you are looking to eat more healthfully, but don’t know where to start, why not start from the moment you wake up? Eating a nutritious breakfast is a simple yet powerful way to take care of yourself.

Tips for adding a self-care breakfast to your routine:

  1. Plan ahead: Decide what your breakfast will be before you go to bed. The night before, have your kitchen clean and check that you have your ingredients on hand. You can rest easy knowing that everything is ready. The last thing we need in the morning is another problem to solve.
  2. Start hydrated: Just upon getting up, have a glass of water. We all wake up experiencing some level of dehydration. During sleep, our bodies are busy repairing muscles and other tissues,working hard for 7-8 hours without a drink. A tall glass of water is the first thing our bodies need. It can be room temperature, warm, or cool, depending on whichever is the most appealing to you. If you had a heavy meal the night before, add a splash of lemon juice to refresh your system. After finishing your water, wait at least fifteen minutes before having breakfast.
  3. Make it count: A nourishing breakfast will put us on the right track for the whole day. If you find yourself polishing off a glazed donut, or skipping breakfast altogether, you may find it impossible to resist cravings for sweet or rich foods throughout the rest of the day. A balanced, whole-foods meal should include carbohydrates (from fruit or whole grains), plus protein and fat (from eggs, nuts, or seeds). Check the labels of many cold cereals and pastries which can be mostly refined carbohydrates; their high sugar content will give you a quick surge of energy followed by a plummeting crash an hour or so later.
  4. Keep it simple: Toast, eggs, smoothies, and oatmeal are all quick and easy to make. You can also always use leftovers from last night’s dinner. Warm up brown rice with some milk, ginger, and a spoon of honey for an instant rice pudding; or add leftover roasted vegetables to your omelets.
  5. Make it fun: Eat something that makes you happy. We are all in a bit of a vulnerable state in the morning, so pick something that brings you comfort. Serve it in your favorite bowl or buy yourself a pretty mug. Eat outside or by a big window to get some natural light. Avoid checking email or social media. Instead, crack open an inspirational book or listen to a favorite podcast.

Enjoy these nourishing Sweet Potato Pancakes on a cozy weekend morning. Make a double batch and freeze the rest for a quick weekday breakfast treat.

SWEET POTATO PANCAKES – Vegan and Gluten-Free

Yield: about eighteen 4-inch cakes

1 cup buckwheat flour
6 tablespoons sorghum flour
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon maple sugar

½ cup mashed sweet potatoes
1/3 cup unsweetened coconut yogurt
1 ¾ cup almond milk
1 tablespoon kuzu mixed with 2 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

To Serve:
Toasted pecans, chopped
Chopped peaches
Grade-A Maple Syrup

Procedure

  1. In medium bowl, sift buckwheat flour, sorghum flour, tapioca starch, baking soda, baking powder, sea salt, and maple crystals. Set aside.
  2. In a blender, combine mashed sweet potato, coconut yogurt, almond milk, kuzu, vanilla, and apple cider vinegar. Blend until smooth.
  3. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Whisk batter only until blended. Let sit for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Heat an 8-inch nonstick pan, or a griddle, until hot.
  5. Using 1-ounce ladle, pour batter onto griddle. Cook cakes over low heat until bubbles in batter break on surface, about 1-2 minutes per side; flip and cook until golden-browned.
  6. If pancakes are sticking, lightly coat pan with oil before pouring batter.
  7. Serve warm with pecans, peaches, and maple syrup.

Cooking with First Descents

First Descents is an incredible organization that leads outdoor adventure retreats (kayaking, rock climbing, and surfing) for young adult cancer survivors. I’ve been fortunate to spend a few weeks every summer cooking for them. The following post was originally posted on the Natural Gourmet Institute blog.

Up before the sun, I hum my way into the kitchen to get the coffee on. As I whip up some buckwheat banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, and triple-berry smoothies, the First Descents participants and staff bustle around the cabin grabbing breakfast, packing their lunches, and gathering their gear for the day. I make a mental note to have something other than a cup of French roast, because I’ve got a full week of cooking ahead of me.

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Hiking in the Adirondacks

For the past two summers, I have traveled around the country (Oregon, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and upstate New York) to cook with First Descents. First Descents is a nonprofit organization that leads life-changing outdoor adventure retreats for 18- to 39-year-old cancer survivors. During each week-long program, the participants conquer outdoor challenges (including rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and surfing) to face their fears, building confidence and community along the way.

To say the energy stays high for the week is an understatement; while I’m at my cutting board slicing tomatoes for their wraps, I can hear them, full-grown adults, singing and laughing like kids away at summer camp. While it’s not surprising to see a dance party break out in the driveway before nine A.M., it surely doesn’t make it any less magical.

It’s the excitement of the participants (as well the few pancakes I was able sneak a bite of) that keeps me going throughout the day. Once we get ahead on prep for the week, the sous chef and I will get to get a break from the kitchen and spend a morning hiking or climbing with everyone. Until then, we’ll be menu planning, food shopping, and cooking in anticipation for their arrival back home.

They return from the river ready to hungrily demolish health-supportive-yet-familiar snacks like salmon and avocado sushi rolls, zucchini bread, and organic tortilla chips with homemade salad and guacamole. It’s my job to introduce them to whole food meals while making it accessible to them. Nothing too foreign get served (no hijiki caviar here!) The food has to be recognizable, comforting, and energy-dense, since they are doing a lot of physical activity. It’s a fine balance between getting them a bit outside of their usual ways while still making sure that they feel satisfied from their meals.

Everyone arrives outside of their comfort zone. As their chef, I need to make sure that they feel supported and fed. I know that trusting all of your meals to be made by someone else, while being a nice luxury, can also feel a bit nerve-wracking, especially to someone with unique dietary needs.

So on top of making sure everyone gets enough guac, and that dinner is served at exactly seven P.M., I need to make sure that Tats doesn’t have the salad dressing (which has cashews), Sunny gets the dairy-free pizza, and that no citrus ends up on T.T.’s plate. (By the way, it’s an FD tradition to go only by nicknames the entire week. To them, I’m not “Chef Ann,” but “Gem,” a name bestowed on me for always travelling with an amethyst for good luck.)

After dessert is served, the sous chef (who happened to be fellow Natural Gourmet Institute instructor Susan Baldassano, I mean, “Bumble Bee,” in New Hampshire) and I join them around the campfire. Getting to connect with the participants is the most rewarding part of this 70-hour work week. The strength and vulnerability they share through their stories of their day on the rock as well as their lives back home is just incredible.

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Me and Bumble Bee (right) hiking in NH

The participants are all at various stages in their cancer treatment; some have been in remission for years, others return back to chemo on Monday. Most have never been rock climbing or kayaking before; for others it’s their first time on a plane, first time away from their kids, or first time meeting another young adult who has had cancer. By the end of the week, a group of twenty-plus individuals have gone from strangers to family.

It is not an exaggeration to say that these weeks have been a transformative experience for me. The week following my flight back home to NYC, coworkers, friends, and even the cashier at Trader Joe’s have called me out for having a “glow.” I’m honored to be a part of the First Descents family, and, as a chef, to be of service to such a deserving organization.

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