It's already February, folks, so unless you have the steeliest of resolve, chances are that pledge to get healthy and make 2017 sugar-free is starting to look a little wobbly.
But rather than going cold turkey, why not try a more gradual approach by cutting down on the sweet stuff. Instead of slipping off the no-sugar bandwagon completely, consider finding healthier substitutes for when a sweet craving hits.
Making smart swaps can be a stepping stone to weaning off the sugar habit and tuning into our body's needs, says Sydney naturopath Anthia Koullouros, author of I Am Food and founder of Ovvio clinic in Paddington.
"Sometimes it's the simple basics," she says. "Clean fresh air, go for a walk or drink a glass of water, make sure your previous meal was balanced with protein, carbs and fats – usually that stops you in your tracks and you don't get that 3.30-itis where you crave sweet things."
That doesn't mean completely depriving ourselves, Koullouros says. It just means treats should be enjoyed mindfully and deliberately. And it's important not to overdo "sugar-free" cakes that substitute refined sugar with natural sugars from dried fruit and syrups, she says.
"[Conscious eating] is something that you choose and you're not at the mercy and beck and call of sugar," she says.
Here are 19 smart ideas to help tame the sugar dragon.
Sprinkle gelatin or chia seeds into a smoothie for an easy panna cotta or chia pudding. Photo: Penguin
Herbal tea jelly or chia pudding
One of the simplest sugar swaps you can make is a light and fragrant jelly using mint, lemon myrtle and licorice root tea, Koullouros says. Brew the tea, dissolve gelatin powder or leaves, set in the fridge and voila – "a delicious sweet jelly but without any sugar". Add a spoon of pureed fruit for extra pulp, or turn a smoothie made from cow, nut or coconut milk into a chia pudding by sprinkling in seeds, or a delicate panna cotta by adding gelatin.
Melt together coconut oil, cocoa butter and cocoa powder with vanilla, cinnamon or peppermint oil, then pour into chocolate moulds or flat onto a sheet and cut into shapes. A little green-leaf stevia adds extra sweetness but often there's no need, Koullouros says. She often pours the chocolate over blueberries and lets it set in the fridge.
Layer up your yoghurt with fruit or nuts. Photo: Penguin
Yoghurt with cinnamon or vanilla
Sugar-free sweet-tasting spices such as cinnamon or vanilla are great for topping yoghurt. Go for a quality brand that's organically grown, and make sure you use a full-fat sugar-free yoghurt to satisfy your hunger, Koullouros says. "You can layer it up with fresh fruit or nuts and seeds."
Chocolate cloud cake
As a "conscious treat", Koullouros suggests this airy chocolate cloud cake. Set the oven to 180C (fan-forced), then melt 350g dark chocolate with 50g butter in a heat-proof bowl over a saucepan quarter-filled with simmering water. Stir in 2 tablespoons of raw honey if desired, and set aside. Separate 10 eggs. In a bowl beat the 10 egg whites until stiff. Place the egg yolks and ½ teaspoon vanilla bean powder in another bowl and blend. Slowly mix in the cooled chocolate mixture to the egg yolks, then gently fold in one third of the egg whites, before folding in the rest. Reduce oven to 150C and bake in a lined springform cake tin for 35 minutes before cooling on a wire rack. "There's pretty much nothing in it," Koullouros says.
Swap a hot cocoa for a turmeric latte. Photo: Stocksy
Herbal tea and turmeric latte
A brew made from licorice root, fennel seed, aniseed, cinnamon or vanilla, all taste naturally sweet without the sugar load. Otherwise, skip the soft drink and go for a DIY concoction made from iced tea with kombucha and sparkling mineral water. Stevia, cinnamon powder and freshly grated ginger root in sparkling water makes a great natural ginger ale – or if you're dying for a hot chocolate, blend cinnamon, ginger and black pepper with turmeric then heat in a pot with milk as you would a hot cocoa. "There's no sugar in it, it just seems to work without any sweetness," Koullouros says.
Avocado mash with carrot sticks
The natural sweetness of carrot is often enough to kick a sugar craving, especially when paired with a healthy mash made from avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. "You can cut through a sugar craving by eating something savoury and salty," Koullouros says.
Keep it simple with a smoothie, suggests Port Macquarie dietitian Emma Schwartzkoff from the Tucker Table cooking school. Blend 200ml milk with a scoop of natural yoghurt, a banana and honey. You can also try mixing it up with different fruit, such as mango or frozen berries, or vanilla essence or cinnamon.
Home-made froyo is a healthier alternative to ice-cream.
Frozen fruit and yoghurt
On hot days, "popping little frozen grapes is a great treat", Schwartzkoff says. Or bust out the blender to make a puree from one red apple (skin on) with half a small carrot, juice of half a lime, 2cm ginger and 2 tablespoons water (not a fan of carrot and ginger? Try cucumber and mint instead). Or, if you're partial to froyo, try two cups berries, ¼ cup natural yoghurt, 2 tablespoons honey and the juice of half a lemon. Blend together and freeze as icy poles or ice-cubes for bite-sized snacks. "You eat them a lot slower – it takes you longer to eat and tricks you into feeling fuller," Schwartzkoff says.
Healthy apple crumble
For a ready-to-assemble snack, stew apple with cloves, cinnamon or five-spice mix and refrigerate, then toast crushed nuts and oats and store in a separate airtight container. When you're feeling peckish, scoop some apple into a bowl and top with the crumble. "That's a great little snack," Schwartzkoff says.
DIY coco pops are great for kids and teenagers. Photo: Pan Macmillan
Home-made coco pops
This one makes a healthier indulgence for kids and teenagers, says nutritionist, blogger and author of Living the Healthy Life cookbook, Jessica Sepel. Mix rice puffs and slivered almonds in a bowl and coat with coconut oil, raw cacao powder, cinnamon and maple syrup, then bake on a lined tray at 180C (160C fan-forced) for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring at the halfway mark. When cool, serve with almond or coconut milk, or yoghurt topped with fruit or chia seeds. Do they really taste like the real thing? "Promise," Sepel says.
Keep peeled bananas in the freezer and you can easily whip up a batch of "nice-cream" on the spot, Sepel says. In a food processor, blend 1½ frozen bananas with 2 tablespoons almond or peanut butter, 1 tablespoon raw cacao powder, 3 tablespoons desiccated coconut, a pinch of cinnamon and sea salt, gradually spooning in water until you reach a soft consistency. Scrape into a bowl and freeze for 20 to 30 minutes, then top with slivered almonds. For a tiramisu alternative, mix the bananas with hulled tahini, cinnamon, coffee, cacao powder, coconut milk, sea salt and ice. "The chocolate, almond and coconut nice-cream is a really great alternative to ice-cream. It's really thick and creamy," Sepel says. "You only need a small amount and you feel really satisfied."
Choc date almond cookies
If you can't go past a soft, chewy cookie, blend eight medjool dates with ½ cup cacao powder, one cup almond meal, two tablespoons almond or cashew butter, sea salt, vanilla powder and cinnamon plus a few tablespoons of water. Roll into six balls and flatten with a fork onto a lined oven tray. Top with cacao nibs and sprinkle with cacao powder. Eat raw or bake for 10 to 15 minutes. "Eat them when they come straight out of the oven," Sepel says.
Cacao sea salt truffles satisfy the sweet tooth - just don't go overboard. Photo: Supplied
Make your own cacao sea salt truffles from one cup raw cashews, one cup medjool dates, two tablespoons cacao powder, two tablespoons nut butter and ¼ teaspoon salt. Blend in a food processor, gradually adding water until well combined but soft and chunky. Roll into small balls and set in the fridge for 30 to 40 minutes. For a protein-rich sugar-free alternative, try LSA or chocolate protein powder with mixed seeds, cacao powder, nut butter, cinnamon, chia seeds and stevia. "I have them after lunch when I'm craving [something] chocolately and sweet," Sepel says. "They contain cacao, which is a healthier version of chocolate."
Vanilla and cinnamon 'cheesecake'
If you have a group to feed, try this no-bake vegan treat from the creator of plant-based Food Fix Up app, Stefanie Neal. For the base, blend 1½ cups almond meal, one cup desiccated coconut, three dates (soaked in water for five minutes) and ⅓ teaspoon sea salt in a food processor then press into the holes of a muffin tin. Fill each base with a filling made from two tablespoons coconut oil, 1½ cups cashews (soaked in water for two hours), ½ teaspoon vanilla powder, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ½ cup coconut cream and two tablespoons maple syrup. Freeze for four hours, then rest at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving. "Most of its sweetness comes from the coconut cream so it's a great substitute for the sugar-laden versions," Neal says.
Delicious for breakfast: black rice pudding. Photo: Eddie Jim
Coconut black rice pudding
Ditch the sugary cereals for this filling breakfast. "Not only will the rice keep you full but black rice is extra delicious [and] super high in antioxidants," Neal says. Soak ½ cup black rice in water for 30 minutes, then pour in a saucepan with ¾ cup coconut milk and ½ tablespoon maple syrup or honey. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until rice is just tender. Pour into a bowl and top with fresh fruit and ¼ cup coconut milk.
Crackers with cream cheese, blueberries and basil
This combo is great as a quick snack on-the-go and makes a good substitute for sugary jams, Neal says. Heat blueberries and a splash of water in a saucepan on low-medium, reduce the blueberries for about 10 minutes. Refrigerate in a container, then spread over crackers with cream cheese and top with basil leaves when you're feeling peckish.
One slice is enough: carrot and cumin bread. Photo: Food Fix Up
Carrot and cumin bread
Just one slice of this bread is satisfying, Neal says. "Spread it with nut butter for an extra protein kick, which will help you feel fuller for longer." Mix two cups almond meal in a bowl with three eggs, one tablespoon apple cider vinegar, two tablespoons macadamia or coconut oil, one tablespoon cumin seeds, ½ teaspoon sea salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ¼ cup sultanas and a 1cm piece of ginger, grated. Add 2½ cups grated carrot, squeeze the dough with your hands, then bake in a lined loaf tin for one hour at 180C.
Cacao and coffee rice bars
Can't get chocolate off the brain? Coat five cups brown rice puffs with a mix of four tablespoons cacao powder, ¼ cup rice malt syrup, two espresso shots, ¼ teaspoon sea salt and ¼ cup coconut oil. Pour into a lined tray and freeze for 30 minutes, before cutting into bars and refrigerating. "[It's] great as a mid-morning pick-me-up and a fantastic substitute for a regular chocolate bar," Neal says.
Sweet and salty almonds
If you're looking for a healthier alternative to store-bought nuts, this is a nutritious alternative as long as you don't go overboard with the coconut sugar – "a little goes a long way," Neal says. Mix almonds, coconut oil, sea salt and a little coconut sugar in a bowl, then bake at 160C for 20 minutes and cool before snacking.