The sugar babies
Sugar. The body needs it. And sometimes craves it. But there is a recommended daily allowance (RDA) that we often tend to exceed, as sugar manages to work its way stealthily into our lives in guises that defy identification: in breakfast cereals, granola bars, fruit juices, canned fruits, flavoured milk/ coffee/ yogurt, sodas, reduced-fat salad dressings, even breads.
Quite like a drug, it affects the brain and can lead to addiction. In fact, sugar addiction is a reality that is now recognised and documented, and considered to be in the same league as any other form of substance abuse. Sugar stimulates the “reward centre” of the brain closely related to the release of dopamines (neurotransmitters or a chemical messenger that helps in transmission of signals in the brain and other vital areas). When we regularly overdose on sugar, the body starts demanding higher doses to produce the same feelings of ‘happy state’ (reward). Reducing or giving up sugar then becomes quite outside one’s control and is accompanied by withdrawal symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, headaches, feeling of being physically drained, uncontrolled cravings and binging to restore the altered brain centre-induced feelings of functionality and satiety.
Says Ryan Fernando, nutrition coach, “We are taught salt and sugar at a young age. As we grow up, these two gastronomic flavours stimulate the neurons of pleasure in the brain, not to mention the ecstasy that the taste-buds are subjected to when we overdose. Sugar has this drug-like effect of making us want more.”
Here’s a basic benchmark for the safe consumption of sugar, the RDA for various age groups: six teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar per day for an adult with a normal body mass index (BMI); not more than four teaspoons of added sugar a day for preschoolers; not more than three teaspoons a day for children between four and eight years.
There is growing evidence that excess sugar is fast becoming a leading cause of several health conditions. Besides pumping the body with empty calories devoid of any nutritional value, excessive sugar can cause insulin resistance, leading to diabetes; cancer (insulin is one of the key hormones in regulating uncontrolled cellular growth and many scientists believe that excess sugar can lead to constantly-elevated insulin, and possibly contribute to cancer); metabolic disorders; increase in body fat and obesity in adults and children; elevated cholesterol leading to heart diseases; teeth problems (providing an easy environment for bad bacteria to grow); impaired immune system; liver overloading/ fatty liverand accelerated ageing (excess sugar can sometimes attach to proteins in a process called glycation, which reduces elasticity in body tissue, including skin, arteries and organs).
So what can we do? To begin with, avoid added sugar. “In packaged foods, I read the labels. That is so, so important,” says Fernando. When the label on a juice or beverage container says ‘added sugar’, I do not buy it.”
There are a few other steps that are essential too. Increase your intake of proteins and fibre (these will give you a better feeling of satiety by taking longer to digest). Do not eliminate carbs completely from your diet (this can induce a “low”, triggering a craving, making you reach for sugar-rich foods for that instant kick and energy). Be aware of sugar in any item you consume — read the labels very carefully (sugar could be mentioned as dextrose, maple syrup, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, glucose, sucrose, molasses, etc.). Go easy on comfort food (usually a combination of evaporated sugar with starch and fat — think french fries, cakes, muffins).
Be aware that “low fat/ calorie” food options may not be low on sugar. Natural is always better than processed — but even in nature, not everything is created equal, some fruits and vegetables have a higher sugar content than others. While palm sugar, honey and dark organic jaggery are better options, remember, they’re still sugar and need to be regulated. Follow an active lifestyle — even the RDA is for people who are involved in a moderate-intensity workout, such as jogging, brisk walking, simple exercises, for at least 30 minutes a day.
And watch out for symptoms of addiction. Nip it in the bud by altering your routine, engaging yourself when craving strikes and looking for healthier substitutes. But avoid drastic measures and self-imposed dietary regulations without adequate know-how.
You could make allowances for “cheat days” by sharing the dessert with a friend, or by scooping out a portion and sticking to it. Slowly acclimatise to lower sugar consumption. After all, the idea is not to set yourself up for crash, burn and failure.