To Crave Is Human
We’re wired as human animals to think that desserts are amazing. In fact, it’s so deep that it goes beyond our taste buds into the very language we speak. Desserts are so amazing that saying “dessert” in a metaphorical way usually means “the best part.”
That’s what we’re about: the best part.
Now, before you go hogging down “the best part” as your sole source of nutrition, slow down. First, young grasshoppa, you need to learn a little about this fabulously delicious and dangerous thing called “dessert.” That’s what this article is about. If you pay attention and follow the links, by the end of this you’ll know how to figure out what kind of desserts are Paleo (or Paleo enough), how much cake to eat, and where to find the best recipes (for success and cookies.)
Let’s start with the broad strokes. The Paleo Diet emphasizes healthy meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, tubers, nuts and seeds, and eliminates foods like grains, legumes, and dairy that cause digestive problems and illnesses in most people. Inspired by the way our paleolithic ancestors ate in order to survive, a Paleo approach is often seen as an extreme elimination diet. Whoa, you’re thinking, “Wait a goddamn second, where’s dessert?” Well, that’s why we started up Paleo Treats. If you have the attention span of a cricket combined with the hunger of a hyena, just head to the store and load up your cart. If, however, you hunger for knowledge and can focus for hours (well, 7-10 minutes) with the white hot intensity of a thousand burning suns, read on.
Where where we? Oh yes, talking about an “extreme elimination diet.” In the sense of the classic food pyramid, Paleo *is* an extreme elimination diet, but that’s because the standard diet is loaded with revolting poisons that will lay you the fuck out unless you’re a genetic freak. You’re on this site, looking up Paleo, so you’re probably not (a genetic freak.) Moving on. Paleo actually offers a lot of freedom. You can stick to a set of pretty broad dietary guidelines and go through life healthy, happy, and with a couple borderline superpower-like attributes (strength, resistance to disease, mental clarity etc.). It’s a pretty good deal.
The downfall of millions of years of evolution leading us to be hyper efficient nutrition processing machines means it’s real easy to go overboard. Exhibit 1: We’re hard-wired to seek out sweetness. As hunter-gatherers, our ability to taste sweet things ensured that we both found dense sources of carbohydrate such as fruits and tubers, and prevented us from poisoning ourselves (our ancestors hadn’t discovered antifreeze when this taste-defense was most useful). In addition, when sugar was available in the form of seasonal fruits and wild honey and plants and the like, we ate as much as we could find. Ah yes, the search for sugar is as old as life itself.
Sugar is essential for our survival. Not in a if-I-don’t-get-a-cookie-I’m-going-to-kill-someone kind of way, but in a glucose-is-the-preferred-source-of-energy-for-the-brain kind of way. It is possible to run the human machine without carbohydrate, but our brains burn glucose preferentially and easily.
Paleo desserts may be the best part, but sugar (and carbohydrate in general) should not be the focus of any meal or diet. Rather, they’re an addition, a bonus that rides on the heels of a varied and healthy lifestyle. Life should be lived; eat a cookie every once in a while.
You Don’t Have To Cheat In Order to Cheat
When we say “cookie,” however, we don’t mean Chips Ahoy, Little Debbie, or Oreo. Our knowledge of what gluten and legumes and dairy (not to mention the unpronounceable mystery ingredients) can do to a body means that we want to avoid them. As much as possible. All the time.
Luckily, Paleo-approved ingredients can be molded into some delectable desserts. The Paleo community has swarmed to meet the challenge of creating delicacies that rival or even surpass the poisonous foods they imitate.
Paleo ingredients like almonds (and almond flour), coconut (and the myriad coconut products like flour, oil, milk) can mimic the gluten-containing flours and dairy products lots of desserts are made from. Plus, some of nature’s most delicious substances are good-to-go when we find them in the grocery store, like vanilla, cocoa powder, and honey. Making these natural foods work for us can allow us a huge degree of sweet-tooth satisfaction without the detrimental health effects that come from a coma-inducing gluten-riddled dairy-driven derailment of a cheat meal.
Now, and we’ll put this in big letters:
The biggest benefits (health, strength, x-ray vision) from the diet are gained when all grains, legumes, and dairy are gone from the picture. After that, we look at the other ingredients.
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
Sweetening things doesn’t have to mean you forego any hope of healthy benefits. Since all forms of carbohydrate break down into just two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, sugar from honey and sugar from broccoli are identical.
But even in the realm of sugars, there is a hierarchy. Things highest on the list of acceptable sweeteners are natural sugars like honey and fruit. They’re not only delicious, but they contain trace minerals and antioxidants that aren’t found in most other forms of sweetener.
What about maple syrup? Here at PT we still aren’t sold on it, but Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple says it’s occasionally OK.
At the bottom of the list are the much maligned high-fructose corn syrup and agave nectar. These syrups are extremely concentrated doses of the simple sugar fructose, which must be processed by the liver, resulting in a higher load of toxic byproducts.
If you’re a complete sucker, you’ll believe the marketing hype around “natural” (evaporated) cane juice, turbinado sugar, and brown sugar. If you’re just an old time conventional cookie maker and you stopped giving any fucks long ago about health and sweeteners, you’ll stick with white table sugar. At the end of the day the fructose/glucose split is 50/50, and they can be much cheaper than other more high-brow sugars, but don’t expect the same kind of vitamin and mineral content.
You should also avoid non-caloric sweeteners like stevia, xylitol and other sugar alcohols, and the like. These compounds can cause an insulin response even though there aren’t any calories to go with it, which can really mess with your hunger signaling.
Yes, there are better and worse sugars.
No, you shouldn’t eat a pint of honey in one sitting.
How To Eat A Paleo dessert
So we’ve traded our flour, milk, butter, and Splenda for good, wholesome ingredients and the best sugar we can find. Now we just need to know how much to actually stuff into our collective face.
The short answer: not that goddamn much.
Even with the best of ingredients, the bulk of your nutrition is not going to come from your dessert. It’s going to come from the healthy plants and animals you ate right before dessert. With that in mind, you can start to determine how much and how often you can get away with eating your favorite paleo desserts.
Start small. The smaller the dose, the better. Then gauge how you feel the next couple hours and days. Gauge how you perform over the next couple of days. Gauge how you start to look in the mirror. If you like how you feel, like how your workouts are going, and like how you look naked, then you’re probably good.
Adjust your intake of Paleo desserts based on how your health and fitness respond. If you start not liking how you feel, start reducing your sugar intake.
Don’t get your hopes high just yet, though. The poison is in the dose, and it’s very easy to get a huge dose of insulin-spiking high-glycemic carbohydrate from even the most natural of sugars. It’s surprising how quickly you can eat addiction-inducing amounts of sugar if it’s packaged in some cookies or cakes or muffins.
Sugar affects the brain in a drug-like way, creating neural reward pathways that promote addictive behaviors. Hunger and satiety signaling can also suffer. Eating less is almost always better.
Some treats try to pass themselves off as more healthy than they really are. Spotting a non-Paleo fake is as simple as reading the ingredients. Go through a mental checklist of ingredients: is everything Paleo? Look for the source of sugar and the amount of sugar per serving. If the source and the amount of sugar match what you’ve found to be manageable, then the only question left is whether or not you are going to share.
Tricks For Treats: Mistakes Beginners Make
Once the world of Paleo dessert devouring opens up to people they tend to promptly find the deep end and drown in honey. Sugar is a dangerous substance for a lot of people. It’s addictive, and it can make it dramatically harder to reach health and fitness goals. Knowing yourself and your habits helps, as well as knowing some common blunders aspiring Paleo-pastry chefs make:
Go Forth And Dominate The Cookie
If you can make sure that your desserts contain good ingredients, that’s good. If you’ve put dessert back in its rightful place on your menu, as a delectable bonus and not an awkward centerpiece, that’s even better. There are a ton of great sites out there with a treasure trove of recipes for everything from cheesecake to raspberry double chocolate truffles. Here are some of the best recipe sites:
Having the occasional Paleo desserts can help you maintain a high level of health without making you feel deprived of the finer things in life. So dig in. Have a cookie.