As a classically trained pastry chef and athlete, there’s a lot of sweetness in my world. Not only because I get to say those two things in the same sentence, but because I confront sweet cravings, sweeteners and an abundance of sweet treats as part of my life and work. This sounds terrifying to some. I think it’s SWEET.
I’ve dedicated ten years of my culinary career to working predominantly with athletes in the sports nutrition and wellness spaces. It’s challenged me to fuse my expertise in the alchemy of cooking with an understanding of how bodies and brains striving for greatness. As a result, my approach to cooking, and eating, speaks not only to the nutrition in our foods, but also the emotional, physical and psychological value in what we eat.
This is what I’ve come to know and respect about sweet cravings, sweet treats and sweeteners in my world.
Rather than studying nutrition or dietetics, I’ve found the study of Ayurvedic medicine to resonate deeply with my experience as an eater and chef. This ancient practice teaches that the way we eat for optimal performance can’t only be governed solely by nutrients, or by examining our foods as a sum of its parts. Instead, we must consider the intrinsic, whole, seasonal and subliminal value of our foods.
Our bodies crave the foods that we need to complete our basic functions to the best of our abilities. And, in times of stress – whether that’s due to anxiety or a challenging physical effort – sweet foods soothe us. But, sweet foods aren’t limited to cakes and cookies. Sweet foods are also carrots and grains, beets and apples…and, of course, cookies.
As an athlete in the middle of a hard day’s effort and craving for something sweet, it’s easy for me to abide; because I know that carbohydrates in that sweet thing are valuable for me physiologically, but also because that sweet flavor will help my emotional and mental state balance the task at hand.
I’m never going for a ride or a run because I ate a piece of cake. And I’m never eating cake because I went for a ride or run and “earned it.” Just by being a person in the world, striving to do my best, that cake is all mine.
As a pastry chef, there is a whole world of sweet ways for me to make up a treat. All involving some kind of refined or unrefined sugar, or sweetener, each with different virtues.
Refined sugars are sweeteners no longer in their natural state. The most villainous being granulated cane sugar; a sweetener that’s been heated, stripped of nutrients and bleached to appear bright white, thus producing creamy white pastries. This is an ingredient that I’ve banished from my pantry. But, I do embrace evaporated cane syrup, coconut sugar and other granulated sugars. These sweet products have been granulated to make them easier to work with. Even maple syrup has been refined a bit from it’s natural state.
All that considered, refined sugars get a very bad rap – and for good reason. Refined sugars are often found in great yet hidden amounts in packaged and processed foods.
But instead of banning refined sugar, I’ve decided to ban packages and processed foods from my kitchen.
I make all of my own sweet treats, and make a conscious decision on what sweeteners to employ in each.
There are good reasons – both as an athlete and pastry chef to use refined sugar. From a culinary perspective, if I want to make candy, cake or cookie with a specific texture, a granulated sweetener may be necessary. So, I would choose a product such as evaporated cane sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar or turbinado sugar. Sometimes, I can choose ingredients such as maple syrup, dates, or honey. But it all depends on what I want that ingredient to DO for my food.
For my body, there are different reasons to use granulated sugars as well. Granulated sugars are easy for our bodies to absorb as glycogen when we’re working hard. An important fact to understand when we need fast energy. In fact, a bit of granulated sweetener added to electrolyte drinks can help our bodies to rehydrate faster. Understanding this uncommon science has made me more open-minded about the ingredients and energy sources I choose to fuel my hard-working body and brain.
Before culinary school, I was training 28-30 hours a week as a professional endurance athlete, competing in ultra-distance events worldwide. I had a hard time finding “sport foods” to fuel my training, so I started making my own. The only guidance I had were my physical cravings for food, which felt like a battle with my brain. I, too, struggled with the “goods and bads,” the “healthy and unhealthy options.” The more I cooked and ate to my cravings, the more powerful I became in my sport and my life.
Once I started studying as a pastry chef, another cool thing happened. Amidst the learning of literally every sweet recipe known to man came a calm of my sweet cravings. I didn’t crave sweets en masse anymore. I only craved The Good Stuff. The cupcakes made with the most well-sourced, virtuous ingredients; the cakes, cookies and chocolate croissants made with heart.
Once all the sweet things were available to me, they suddenly became less craveable but yet all the more amazing.
Suddenly, everything sweet was well within my grasps, and if I craved it, I made it. Or bought it from someone who knew how to make it expertly.
And so, the moral of my story is this. The more I embraced sugar cravings as part of my body’s natural balance, welcomed sweet treats in all forms into my life, and took it upon myself to select specific ingredients to fulfill my sweet needs, the SWEETER LIFE BECAME.