Sweetness Sans Sugar: Wan Na Chun On How to Relish Food Without The Sugar Spike

An Interview With Wanda Malhotra

Wanda Malhotra
Authority Magazine

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Sugar goes by many names! Be on the lookout for sneaky culprits like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), brown rice syrup, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, and even fruit juice concentrate. They all add up to your daily sugar intake, even if they sound more natural. When reviewing food labels, it’s best to look for a list of minimal ingredients that are easily recognizable including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins. Flavored yogurts are notorious for having added sugars. Many processed items that have “low-fat” claims also tend to also compensate for the reduced fat content with increased sugar to improve palatability.

As the appetite for foods that offer health benefits beyond basic nutrition continues to grow, the market for functional foods has exploded. Consumers are no longer just asking for delicious flavors; they demand that their foods also support their lifestyle, health, and well-being. This intersection of function and flavor is not just a trend; it’s a movement towards a future where every bite counts towards better health. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Wan Na Chun, MPH, RDN, CPT.

Wan Na is a licensed registered dietitian, food blogger, and certified personal trainer. As a public health dietitian, Wan Na focuses on using personalized nutrition and physical activity to prevent chronic diseases and conditions. Her approach to wellness is to keep it simple and choose healthy habits that work for you.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

My name is Wan Na and I am a registered dietitian and personal trainer. I was born to immigrant parents and grew up in New York City. As a child, I was exposed to diverse cuisines and flavors that shaped my palate and became an integral part of my upbringing. My approach to nutrition and wellness starts with enjoying the foods that nourish us. With my combined expertise in fitness, nutrition, and behavior change, I take an all-encompassing approach to wellness.

As a dietitian, I recognize that food means more than just nutrients. Food is also about connection, culture, and identity. I believe in working collaboratively with busy individuals and families to adapt healthy changes that celebrate taste and lifestyle preferences. My approach focuses first on making meals flavorful and fun by incorporating spices, herbs, and unique ingredients to create satisfying dishes.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

The most interesting story from my career was when I tried to sell e-commerce items online a few years ago as a means to generate side income. Things were working out well until I accidentally provided the incorrect shipping address for my products to another warehouse. I have spent many hours and made many attempts to retrieve and locate the products with no luck. Whenever I now get a package notification, I wonder if it will be a shipment of three thousand stuffed animals showing up at my doorstep!

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Staying open-minded to new opportunities and methods has been crucial to my growth as a leader. Leading with an open mind instead of assumptions has helped guide me towards growth and progress. For example, experimenting with various forms of content and modes of communication has allowed me to reach a wider and more diverse audience. I have also been open minded to pushing myself outside of my comfort zone to create more recipe videos and engage with my audience through various social media platforms. As a result, this has also allowed me to connect with individuals who may not have discovered me through traditional methods.

As a leader with a self-starter mindset, I take initiative and proactively seek solutions with new technology. For example, I actively sought out opportunities to familiarize myself with the latest AI tools and platforms that were relevant to my field. This proactive approach not only allowed me to stay ahead of industry trends but also enabled me to identify innovative AI-driven solutions. These solutions helped enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of many processes which have allowed me to focus on the most impactful parts of my business.

My ability to be self aware also allows me to clarify my values, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses. This trait has helped me develop a positive outlook on the world and encourages a growth mindset. I used to avoid taking on new projects at work if I didn’t feel confident I would excel at them. However, I realized this avoidance was limiting my learning and growth. I’ve adopted a growth mindset that has enabled me to reevaluate and evolve my approach. Now I willingly volunteer for challenges that seem daunting or unfamiliar. Even if I have to stretch myself substantially or risk not getting it right the first few tries, I know that is how my skills expand. Stepping out of my comfort zone to intentionally take risks reminds me that abilities can always be developed.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that might help people?

I am working on creating more nutritious versions of cultural recipes that really help showcase unique flavors and ingredients around the world. I would love to see a shift in the way that we approach what “healthy” food means and looks like by tapping into global cuisines and traditions that are full of flavor.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. What inspired you to explore sugar-free culinary alternatives, and how has this journey changed your approach to cooking and nutrition?

I wanted to explore sugar-free alternatives to show my clients that it is possible to make healthier choices that still taste delicious. For many people, completely eliminating their favorite sweets doesn’t feel sustainable long-term. I wanted to explore small swaps that would reduce added and processed sugars through gentle modification versus elimination.

My journey with sugar-free cooking started with some simple swaps. I would use mashed ripe bananas or applesauce in baking to decrease the amount of added sugar needed in a recipe. As I explored more natural sugar alternatives, I began to understand more about how natural sugars reacted together, the various ratios to use, and which natural sugars work the best as substitutions in different recipes.

I’ve found that decreasing the reliance on added sugars forces me to focus more on highlighting the flavors naturally present in ingredients. Over time, my palette has grown accustomed to less sweetness and I’ve been able to better appreciate the subtle flavors in foods. Exploring sugar-free cooking has opened up a whole new world of ingredients, recipes, and flavors for me. I’ve learned about so many clever alternatives that celebrate sweet flavors without the processed sugars.

Can you share a memorable experience where a sugar-free dish you prepared or tasted completely changed your perception of sugar-free cuisine?

I remember trying my first raw vegan carrot cake that did not have any added sugar. It completely changed my perception of refined sugar-free desserts. The cake was made from a base of nuts and dried fruits. It was incredibly delicious even though it did not contain any refined sugar. The use of wholesome ingredients including dates, raisins, and carrots provided a rich and satisfying flavor that did not compromise the taste or the experience of enjoying dessert. This raw vegan dessert made me realize that sugar-free desserts can be not only healthy but also incredibly satisfying.

How do you balance flavor and satisfaction in desserts without the use of traditional sugars, and what are some of your favorite natural sweeteners or techniques?

As a registered dietitian and recipe developer, I focus on building flavor and enhancing the natural sweetness of whole foods.

Rather than relying on added sugars, I prefer using fruits as a natural sweetener because it adds additional fiber and nutrients to a dish. One of my favorite ingredients to use are dates which are naturally very sweet. Soaking dates then blending them into a smooth, sticky paste creates the perfect binder for many tasty portable snacks including no-bake cookie dough bars, homemade protein bars, granola bars, and fruit and nut energy bites.

I also build umami and natural sweetness by roasting vegetables or sautéing aromatics to deepen their sweeter undertones. Rather than adding sugar, simply roasting vegetables can build on their natural sugars. Many vegetables including carrots, onions, squash, sweet potatoes, beets, and tomatoes become sweeter in flavor when roasted. Even roasting leafy greens like kale chips or charring endive over a grill helps add a layer of sweetness. I also love sautéing and caramelizing sliced Vidalia onions which turns into a sweet, golden, jammy topping that is perfect for balancing salads, grain bowls, pastas, and omelets.

In your opinion, what are the biggest misconceptions about sugar-free eating, and how do you address these in your work or advocacy?

The biggest misconceptions I encounter about sugar-free eating typically stems from an all-or-nothing approach. Complete restriction around enjoying an occasional sweet treat often leads to feelings of deprivation that can create an unhealthy relationship with food. Enjoying the occasional small treat in moderation is perfectly reasonable for sustaining a healthy lifestyle. From my professional experience as a dietitian, I’ve found that completely restricting or avoiding sweets often leads to stronger cravings, feelings of deprivation, and a higher likelihood of overindulging later on. This restrictive “all or nothing” approach is not realistic or sustainable for most people. Enjoying sweets can absolutely fit into a healthy diet and lifestyle when consumed in moderation. Having the right balance is essential for long term sustainable success, both physically and mentally.

Another common misconception that people have is that sugar-free products are inherently healthy. The reality is that many sugar-free products are still high in calories, unhealthy fats, artificial sweeteners, and other processed ingredients. It’s important to focus on whole, unprocessed foods as the foundation of a healthy diet, regardless of sugar content.

Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Expert Tips on How to Relish Food Without the Sugar Spike”?

  1. When picking carbs to pair with a meal, it’s best to choose whole grains that have an adequate amount of fiber such as quinoa, brown rice, or 100% whole wheat bread instead of refined options. The fiber in whole grains helps slow down the rapid blood sugar spikes after consumption. For example, instead of refined white bread for toast, switching to a 100% whole grain toast can provide an additional 6g of fiber that can help prevent midmorning energy crashes.
  2. Healthy fats play an important role in controlling blood sugar spikes when included in balanced meals. Including foods with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil can help regulate the digestion and absorption of sugars. Adding foods like avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and other plant-based fats slow digestion and the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream after eating. I’ve seen this make a dramatic difference in my clients’ hunger levels and energy levels after eating. Instead of reaching for cookies as a quick snack, grab a handful of almonds or pistachios. The protein and healthy fats in nuts will keep you feeling fuller for longer and prevent blood sugar dips that lead to cravings for sugary treats.
  3. Eating moderate portions of high-quality proteins at each meal helps sustain energy while preventing large spikes in blood sugar. I commonly see clients relying on quick high-carb options in the mornings, including cereal, bagels, or pancakes. All of those refined grains can rapidly spike blood sugar which increases the likelihood of an energy crash soon after. Adding in a protein source helps stabilize the blood sugar response. Protein sources including eggs, nuts, seeds, nut butter, greek yogurt, and milk or soy milk are great choices in the morning. Clients are always amazed how much more energized they feel just by adding 20–30g protein first thing in the morning. One of my favorite convenient and protein packed breakfasts are overnight oats. To make overnight oats, soak rolled oats in milk or yogurt overnight with chia seeds for a quick protein-packed breakfast.
  4. Using aromatic spices and herbs is another great way to help boost flavors without adding any sugar. Warming spices including cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, chili flakes, can add a layer of complexity to your meals that allows you to enjoy the natural sweetness and flavors of foods. For example, instead of cooking oatmeal in brown sugar, try making a spiced oatmeal made with cooked apples, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and black pepper along with a bit of vanilla. This is one of my favorite breakfasts where the aromatic spices complement the natural sweetness of the fruit and oatmeal without the need for adding sugar.
  5. Sugar goes by many names! Be on the lookout for sneaky culprits like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), brown rice syrup, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, and even fruit juice concentrate. They all add up to your daily sugar intake, even if they sound more natural. When reviewing food labels, it’s best to look for a list of minimal ingredients that are easily recognizable including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins. Flavored yogurts are notorious for having added sugars. Many processed items that have “low-fat” claims also tend to also compensate for the reduced fat content with increased sugar to improve palatability.

Looking towards the future, how do you see the evolution of sugar-free cooking and baking, and what innovations are you most excited about in this field?

I am excited to see a shift that many food companies are moving towards using fruits, like dates, figs, and bananas instead of artificial sweeteners to add sweetness in prepackaged foods. Unlike artificial sweeteners, fruits are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They add to our daily intake of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Incorporating more fruit and vegetables into prepackaged foods will make these convenience items much more nutritious. I am also excited for the many new alternative sugars available on the market that are made from fruits, including date and coconut sugar. These are natural sweeteners made from dehydrated dates and coconut sap. They have a rich caramel-like flavor that’s slightly less sweet than refined sugar, but have a complex flavor profile that adds depth and sweetness to baked goods, smoothies, and even savory dishes.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could start a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, I would advocate for the addition of a grocery store on every street in America. This would increase the availability of healthy food options by making them more easily accessible. I believe that this would have a transformative impact on public health. The lack of access to healthy and affordable food options, particularly in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods, contributes to food insecurity and other adverse health effects including malnutrition, obesity, and chronic diseases. Simply improving access to grocery stores can have a significant positive impact on health outcomes.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Readers can follow my work online by visiting my website, YouTube channel, or signing up for my newsletter on Substack!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com .

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Wanda Malhotra
Authority Magazine

Wellness Entrepreneur, Lifestyle Journalist, and CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living.