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Can I Still Have Sugar on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

December 06, 2017

Can I Still Have Sugar on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

With the holiday season in full throttle, sweet treats are aplenty. But if you’re trying to stick to your whole food plant-based diet, those holiday sugar cookies could throw a monkey wrench in your healthy living plan.

It starts with a few cookies at the holiday party, next thing you know you’ve spent half of your workday eating out of the candy bowl at reception. New phrases like “breakfast dessert” find their way into your vocabulary and you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if there’s any cake left in the refrigerator. Your master plan to go sugar-free, cold turkey, on January 1st validates that third piece of pie (hey, there’s fruit in there, at least).

But here’s the problem: refined sugar. There are not only health consequences (which I’ll get into in a minute), it’s also physically addictive! That said, you don’t have to be a slave to sugar cravings. The good news: you can avoid refined sugar this holiday season AND indulge your sweet tooth with a whole food plant-based diet.

First, let’s get down to the brass tacks of sugar.

What’s the difference between refined and natural sugars?

Did you know a banana has 14 grams of sugar? Seems like a lot, right?

And if you think about, it makes sense: bananas are very sweet. So why is a banana “healthy” and a sweet drink with 14 grams of sugar in it “unhealthy?”

The big difference is that a banana is a whole food, and refined sugar is not. Refined sugar is typically made from sugar cane or sugar beets but has gone through an extraction and purification process. During this process the nutrients from the cane or beet are lost. A banana, on the other hand, still has its nutrients in tact. It is packed with magnesium, potassium and most importantly, fiber. Sugar cane, in its most natural form is also loaded with fiber, but when we extract the juice to make granulated sugar, that fiber is separated out.

A banana may have a good bit of sugar, but its fiber works to stabilize blood glucose levels by slowing the rate of absorption of that sugar into your bloodstream. This prevents the energy spikes and crashes that we often experience after drinking a soda or eating a treat made with refined sugar. 

Ever seen scary headlines about how your sugar habits will cause you to gain unwanted weight? Not so with natural sugars. Fiber helps to aid digestion, so the sugar does not absorb in excess, which prevents fat deposit buildups in the body.

How to Consume Sugar on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet

You can have your (plant-based) cake and eat it, too. Don’t worry — the solution isn’t eating bananas instead of cookies.


Instead, try harnessing natural sugars to sweeten baked goods, desserts, and even to make ice cream!

My favorite whole food plant-based sugar hack is to use date syrup to sweeten cookies, cakes, pastries, pie crusts, and hot cereal.

How the heck do I make date syrup, you ask?

Just blend soaked dates with water until you’ve reached a smooth, syrupy consistency. Dates (like many dried fruits) are loaded with both fiber and natural sugar, and have a rich, molasses-like taste that will give your dessert a unique flavor. Try making syrup from raisins, and prunes for a more distinctive flavor. Better yet, use those 14 grams of sugar and mush up a ripe banana that acts not only as a binder (egg replacer), but as a sweetener, too.

Can I have supplemental sweeteners on a whole food plant-based diet?

Yes, supplemental sweeteners fit the bill so long as you go natural. Try agave,or maple syrup instead of refined, white sugar.

Just make sure to up your fiber intake by adding some ground up flax seed (which can be used as an egg substitute when mixed with water), fruits, or whole grains (not refined flour) to the mix.

Can I Still Eat a Sweet Breakfast?

For those craving sweet over savory in the morning, you are not alone. I’d prefer to eat something sweet early on in the day rather than right before bed myself. Thankfully, whole food plant-based breakfasts can still be sweet!

Whole food plant-based pancakes are a go-to in my house. How I make them: I blend oat flour, 1 mashed banana, a few tablespoons of ground flaxseed, some chia, a small scoop of natural peanut butter, some almond milk, a dash of cinnamon (in almost any proportion to make a thick batter) and fry it in a non-stick pan on low heat.

Instead of dousing my whole food plant-based pancakes with maple syrup (like many Vermonter’s do), I microwave a few cups of frozen blueberries with a tablespoon or so of maple syrup, and drizzle it generously on top of my pancakes. Voila! A low-sugar, fibrous, and sweet breakfast.

Want to go even simpler? Make oatmeal and mix in walnuts, apple slices, date and raisin chunks, cinnamon, almond milk, peanut butter, and a mashed banana. Sprinkle some ground flaxseed on top for a nutty flavor.

How can I quit refined sugar?

If you’re worried it’s “too late” and you’re already addicted, it’s never really too late. There are steps you can take to wean yourself off refined sugar.

First and foremost, don’t let yourself get to the point where you’re starving. Make sure to eat and snack frequently. On a whole food plant-based diet you shouldn’t be worried about portion control, so eat until you are satisfied. Being full will deter you from sticking your hand in the cookie jar in the first place.

Some whole food plant-based sweet treats to keep around: 

Peanut butter stuffed dates

Frozen red grapes 

Once you’re off sugar, you will find that you don’t even want it and the decision to avoid it becomes a no-brainer.

But… Ice Cream…

Obsessed with ice cream? Blend a frozen banana until you reach the consistency of soft serve. Add a dash of cinnamon and use it on top of apple crisp, or mix it with plant-based milk to make a milkshake. Add fruit to the blender to make strawberry, blueberry or raspberry ice cream. This is also a good tip to ensure you never waste another banana again. 

Try this super simple whole food plant-based ice cream recipe next time a sugar craving hits.

Kick refined sugar as part of you New Year’s resolution

Almost EVERYONE’S New Year’s resolution is to eat less sugar. Start the weaning process now so you can actually stick to your resolution in the long run.

One of the biggest resolution mistakes is that people give up when they feel like they can’t stick to their goal 100 percent. Give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up over cheating. Just try to veer towards whole food plant-based sugars in the future. Every day is a new day.

Need some delicious whole food plant-based dessert recipes?

This vegan eggnog is the perfect plant-based holiday recipe to satisfy that sweet tooth.

Plant-Based Brownie

Chocolate lovers, rejoice! Brownies don't need refined sugar to shine - just try this plant-based recipe.

Plant-Based Apple Crisp

Feeling nostalgic? Try some plant-based apple crisp.


By Caroline DiNicola Fawley

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