Birthday Sugar Rush
Many people celebrate birthdays with cake. It's a fun tradition, but today we eat too many foods that rapidly shoot up sugar blood levels - prompting more hunger and cravings. We don't usually think about how sugar affects us. Some people simply get moody/tired or gain weight. At an alarming rate, however, pre-diabetes and diabetes are becoming commonplace.
To create diabetes awareness, and in honor of my aunt who recently passed away and had the disease, I decided to eat zero added sugar and no sweeteners for 31 days. I have been documenting and sharing my unsweetened journey on Facebook (Int’l No Junk Food Day) and Instagram (@nojunkfood1day).
In the middle of my sugar awareness campaign, my husband had a birthday! I thought about creating a raw alternative to the soft, super sweet, and spongy birthday cake. Watermelon cut into a torte-shape, topped with berries and some candles anyone?! Or better yet, shape a vegetable the same way? But then, wouldn't that work-around be just a little too easy?!
I decided to bake my beloved husband a cake to celebrate his birthday. It was not, however, an ordinary cake. The cake was gluten-free. Though I wanted sweetness to come from fresh whole fruit, the recipe I used called for a less desirable sweetening agent. But wait - don't judge me yet! Eating cake proved to be anything but a derailment to my "zero added sugar" crusade. I explain here why.
Sugar in Baking
First things first. I am no expert cake baker. In my life, I have baked from scratch 1 cake prior to this one, and it had both gluten and tons of sugar. Fortunately, it occurred to me to ask a friend who bakes about the baking process. As it turns out, refined granular cane sugar does more than just sweeten cake. Sugar is a functional ingredient that creates volume, structure, browning, and moisture in cake-baking. Admittedly, these are all highly desirable qualities. Knowing that I would bump up my daily sugar quota, I didn’t want a flat cake.
My husband picked one of several recipes I had gathered and, to my chagrin, he chose the one with the most sweetening ingredients. It also looked the best in the photos, I’ll give him that. I decided to give the birthday boy what he wanted - especially because what he really wanted was a conventional cake. And so, I took a close look at the ingredients.
The recipe called for the following sweeteners: 1/2 cup of honey, 1/2 cup of coconut palm sugar (granular form), 3/4 cup of chopped dates or raisins, and 1/2 cup of maple syrup for the frosting.
Right away I spotted the ingredient that would preserve the integrity of the cake’s structure: coconut palm sugar. At first, I resisted using it. I had never heard of coconut palm sugar before. I researched it a bit to see if I could find any redeeming qualities. Some websites claimed it had a lower glycemic index (GI). I didn’t think GI would matter with a granular form of sugar. The American Diabetes Association seems to agree with me on that (see by clicking here). Others said it maintained more nutrients, and has less fructose than table sugar, which are desirable traits to some. I won’t get into glucose, sucrose and fructose here because none of that made much difference to me.
This novice baker had no luck finding a more wholesome substitute that would create fluffy, tasty cake. What was a #noaddedsugar and #zerosweeteners girl to do? I chose compromise through balance, which compels me to share more thoughts about how I see the supposed "villain" of this story - dear sugar.
Sugar in Food
A few years ago, I learned from a friend some information that has served me well since:
Our bodies break down all food into sugar - eventually.
The question, therefore, isn’t simply what contains sugar (of any sort). Rather, someone once advised me to eat foods that are nutrient dense and take the longest to break down (keep me full, cravings down).
On my Tribute journey, I ate fruit (limited to 1 cup or less/day on most days), honey, and vegetables containing sugar that are nutrient dense (fresh beets, sweet potato, etc.). I also continued eating gluten-free oats and Ezekiel bread. These foods (minus the honey) are harder for the body to digest than ones comprised mostly of simple sugars. Once the stomach breaks down all food, however, it becomes sugar. How much sugar our bodies use as energy, versus how much is stored as fat, varies by person based on their size, metabolism, weight, etc. Warning: I'm no nutrition expert, but I have figured out that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to food.
If the body uses all broken down food (sugars) in more or less the same way, then I decided to account for the cake’s additional sugar to minimize its affect on my body (cravings, hunger, fatigue, etc.).
Eating Cake and Finding Balance
In anticipation of eating cake, I created balance on my sweets-less journey in a couple of ways. Please note, I’m a lawyer, not a doctor. And I don’t have diabetes. If you have diabetes, consult your doctor before playing with food on your own. I’m sharing what I did because it worked for me. While some things may be true for everyone, others may differ. As always.
First, I strategically planned the one thing I control: my food intake. I ate no fruit or Ezekiel bread the day before I baked the cake. On the day after eating cake, I ate some fruit, but no Ezekiel bread and less food overall. Why would this matter? Bodies process food all the time. We know it's best to eat balanced daily, but sometimes we don’t. Awareness of what foods I put in my body is helpful to me. I figure if I go over in one way, I can create balance in others. A little planning goes a long way.
Second, I added less sweet ingredients to the cake I baked. While I used the full 1/2 cup of granular coconut palm sugar for texture and structure, I used very little honey and only a few dates. Again, I’m no baker, and didn’t realize that the honey was a “liquid.” Result - I think I got less batter. Instead of baking two layers, I baked a single thick one - so I made it work! Hoping to try other substitutes later. For purposes of the birthday, however, the cake was a solid hit.
Ingredients in Batter Matter
Ingredients truly matter. Even when it comes to cake. My body’s reaction surprised me, so I want to share how I felt after eating my first piece of gluten and refined sugar free cake (and why I plan on making more healthier baked goods recipes like this one).
I always manage to eat more than one slice of cake. We had this cake first thing in the morning (note: that’s generally a terrible idea). I was prepared to eat two slices and embarrassingly report that I was unable to resist the temptation.
We ate the first slice. Loved it. I wanted more, but my body wouldn’t take more. Never before had I experienced this phenomenon with cake. I’ve always eaten more and more! Why? Cakes made out of refined wheat flours and cane sugar head straight to the bloodstream. Simply put, our bodies break down these ingredients quickly and then we crave more. I know nothing about the details of this, but I do know it's what happens to me when I normally eat cake!
The cake I baked was a carrot cake and proved filling because it was packed chock full of protein, fat and fiber. Almond flour (protein/fat), coconut oil (fat), carrots (fiber), shredded coconut (fiber), cream cheese (fat), butter (fat), walnuts (protein/fat) and bits of dates (fiber). Low calorie this cake was not. It was hearty, full of fat, and many calories. At the same time, unlike most conventional cakes, it was nutrient-dense and very filling. I experienced no cravings, brain fog or fatigue. And with all the balancing, the indulgence didn’t result in any weight gain last week. Very pleasing, indeed.
Some might consider this a cheat or fail. Setting aside all healthier options for birthday celebrations (see watermelon torte), the experience was invaluable to me. I learned about the function that granular sugar plays in baking, got creative with the recipe, and lowered the cake’s total sugar content without compromising its flavor or structure. In addition, to celebrate a birthday, I made room for added sugar by cutting other sugars that were already present in my diet. At the end of the day, isn’t this the very tension most of us struggle to manage? I feel no shame for creating balance on this special journey that “Let Me Eat Cake!”