As I write about the foods I prepare, I find myself wanting a simple phrase to describe the organizing principle behind my ingredients. They are most often some combination of fresh, local, unprocessed (or minimally so), organic, free-range, grass fed and relatively “whole.” You won’t see long mysterious words on the ingredients list. They don’t contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). You can see examples on my shopping list. I’ll call them “real foods” for shorthand – that’s so much easier than a long list of qualifiers!
I will admit a deep prejudice against certain baked goods. Cupcakes, in particular. Don’t get me wrong. I love butter cream and cakes and scones, fancy pastries and home-baked delights as much as the next gal! I’d probably eat them daily, IF they were good for me. There are soooo many (very talented) cupcake-baking food bloggers out there. Who doesn’t drool over the gorgeous photos of cakes, pies, brownies, cookies and ooey-gooey frosted delights that seem to call out, when the world disappoints you, I will always be there for you… After all, don’t we all deserve a little daily “comfort” in our busy, stress-fueled world?
But even though these homey baked goods may be of higher quality than your grocery store variety, and created with the best of intentions, they can’t be called “healthy” by a long shot. And the “cupcake trend” reveals a problem with American diet and lifestyle generally: much too much of the wrong thing.
Eat too much grain, particularly refined white flours, and I get cranky. And achy. And tired. As for sugar, I have a seemingly endless capacity for consuming it when my super-sensitive craving mechanisms are triggered. Alcohol, particularly my much-beloved red wine, really brings out the sugar monster in me. Sugar is a powerful drug, confirmed by studies on addiction – and my personal observations. When I “detox” from sugar for 5-7 days, the demonic cravings go away. Just like that. A classic addiction pattern that mimics the withdrawal from nicotine and other drugs. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at doing the right thing for my body. And (sigh) that means consuming far less alcohol and sugar to keep those addiction demons at bay. It’s one of the ways that I, now in my mid-40s, have actually matured. But, boy, it’s taken a long time to get here!
Okay, you might say, but don’t be such a killjoy! I’m not as sensitive as you are! White flour and sugar don’t make me feel that bad. I can quit anytime. True, maybe, for some of you – but, then, that doesn’t mean sugary baked goods are good for you. Simple truth is, NO ONE should be indulging in them daily. Nor should we be encouraging cupcake-obsessive eating habits with our kids or daily cookie raids with our coworkers. More Americans than ever are overweight or obese. Among the root causes are poor diet, characterized by over-consumption of sugar, white flour, refined grains and the inexpensive, pro-inflammatory vegetable fats found in most commercially made (and many homemade) baked goods.
Obesity presents its own problems. But it is also one of the chief risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, which has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “If current trends continue, 1 in 3 Americans will develop diabetes sometime in their lifetime, and those with diabetes will lose, on average, 10–15 years of life.” And, with the disease comes a range of unpleasant treatments and the risk of severe health complications, which assure that such a short life will have its share of pain and misery. We can and must put a stop to this disturbing trend now, by taking back our own bodies. We all deserve food that tastes good and is good for us!
But, back to the cupcakes – I don’t really think that cupcakes, nor their well-meaning bakers and admirers, are evil. Or to blame for all our dietary woes. I think it’s okay to indulge now and then – maybe even once a week for the not-so-sensitive. But given the current crisis in diet-related health, I feel that cupcakes and other baked treats need to be viewed for what they really are: a delicious concoction of non-essential dietary ingredients that offer little health or nutritional benefit.
So, what’s the healthier alternative for those looking for a bit of sweet foodie comfort? Fresh fruit probably tops the list. At first, my sugar demons screamed, you’ve got to be kidding me! You’re swapping my chocolate chunk cookies for an orange? But they quickly settled down and then a citrus fruit, some pineapple, a slice of watermelon or fresh berries became my new sweetest pleasures. Or a dish of plain yogurt with some fruit or a spoonful of preserves stirred in. Even some herb tea with a tiny bit of honey takes the edge off my after-dinner sweet tooth. Some nights, much to my surprised delight, the demons don’t pipe up at all and I get through the day without any sweet treat. And on those days, I feel such a delightful sense of freedom! It’s not unlike what I felt when I finally stopped smoking: you will not rule me, addiction! I am master of my own destiny!
I will always reserve my right to enjoy the occasional butter-creamed goody, its sensual pleasures and emotional comforts. And even to over-indulge on rare occasion. But most of my diet is from fresh, wholesome, unprocessed foods. When you eat foods as close as possible to their natural state, you immerse yourself in a diverse array of colors, textures, smells and wonderful tastes – and all of the health benefits that go along with them. It is a profound act of self-nurturing. True “comfort food” nourishes the body and the soul.