I have always had a sweet tooth.
I was six years old when I had my first can of Coke. It wasn’t yet available in the town where I lived, but my father had brought one back from the city. As I took my first sip from the shiny red can, I knew it was something special.
At the time the world didn’t know just how much suffering, disease and death would result from society’s love affair with added sugar. And I had not realised that many years later I’d be asking: Should we quit sugar?
I know that we are talking about something that makes people very happy.
But the rates of obesity are rising all over the world, and added sugar is one of the culprits. Diets high in added sugar increase your chances of dying from the world’s number one cause of death—heart disease. If that’s not enough, it is linked to diabetes and certain types of cancer.
If you are reading this, I am going to assume that you too have a sweet tooth and that just like me you want to live a long, healthy and productive life. That you want to minimize your reliance on doctors, medicines and surgery.
In the name of health and happiness, let’s get rolling.
- Why Do We Love Sugar?
- Eat This, Not That
- What If I Workout?
- Do These Ads Make Me Look Fat?
- A Life Post-Sugar
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Why Do We Love Sugar?
Although I fell in love with my can of Coke in the summer of 1995, humans fell in love with sugar a million years ago!
Before the invention of agriculture, food was not easily available and it was common for us to die of starvation. In fact, humans spent most of their time finding food.
Sugar happens to be a great source of energy, and any food that contained sugar (mostly fruits) could have literally made the difference between life and death. In other words, early humans who looked for and ate sweet things were more likely to survive.
We have inherited this taste for sweetness from our prehistoric ancestors. Fast forward to today and food is everywhere—from supermarkets around the corner to Domino’s coming straight to your door.
We Can’t Control Ourselves Around Sugar
As anybody who has ever tried to say no to a chocolate doughnut can attest: Sugar is very difficult to resist. And the scientists agree. Sugar has a powerful effect on your brain’s reward system (just like drugs!).
Here are the signs of addiction: craving, continued use despite negative consequences, trying to quit but not managing to, tolerance and withdrawal. Does that sound like something you have eaten recently?
Eating a sugary snack can initially give you a pleasant burst of energy (informally called a sugar high). But as your blood sugar skyrockets, your body will rapidly produce insulin to remove the excess sugar from your blood.
All the insulin that your body produced can leave you with too little blood sugar—a sugar crash. And this makes you feel irritable, anxious and hungry for another sugary snack…
Eat This, Not That
When I had asked if we should quit sugar, I was talking about added sugar.
That’s the sugar that a manufacturer (or you) has added to your food, e.g., a can of Coke has almost 10 teaspoons of added sugar. Another example is you add some sugar to your morning coffee.
I am certainly not asking you to give up natural sugar. That’s the sugar that is present in fruits, vegetables, grains and milk. These foods are very healthy for you and come packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein.
Alright, back to the added sugar: It is hiding in the packaged food that grocery stores sell. I’m talking about the food in the boxes, cans, bags and bottles that we buy. There is a reason why it’s called junk food—it comes loaded with calories and has no other nutrients.
The added sugar is in your (deep breath) soft drinks, fruit juices, iced teas, flavoured coffees, energy drinks, biscuits, cakes, sauces, spreads, salad dressings, baby food, ice creams, chocolates, candies, granola bars, protein bars, bread, baked beans, yogurt, breakfast cereals and peanut butter.
It’s in your Dairy Milk, Snickers, Coca-Cola, Appy Fizz, Oreo cookies, Cornetto ice cream, Kellogg’s Chocos, Maggi Tomato Ketchup, Kissan Mixed Fruit Jam… It’s a very long list and I couldn’t possibly list them all here. (In fact, up to 74% of the packaged food in your grocery store is probably full of added sugar.)
And I know I have listed some of your favourite foods here. They are my favourites too, but the global health crisis is serious stuff and it’s time to name names.
Foods You Thought Were Healthy
People want to be healthy and health advice is everywhere.
Unfortunately, a lot of that advice is conflicting and most of it is confusing. Add billion-dollar marketing budgets into the mix and you may start to misinterpret the benefits of products.
Here are some foods that you thought were healthy (but aren’t really):
Breakfast Cereals. It’s marketed as full of vitamins, minerals, whole grains, fibre – you name it, and your cereal probably has it! But if you looked at the ingredients, it wouldn’t appear so healthy after all—it is basically a sugary dessert.
Breakfast cereals are super convenient for a busy lifestyle, but they aren’t healthy. A home-cooked breakfast would be healthy.
Fruit Juice. It is loaded with added sugar, plus you are missing out on all the good fibre in fruits. It’s also easy to over-consume fruit juice—if you ate whole fruits you would probably feel full after 1-2 oranges, but you could chug a glass of orange juice (containing the sugar of 4 oranges) and still be hungry.
Skip the juice, and eat the whole fruit.
Low-Fat Food. It means they removed the fat but increased the sugar to make it still taste good. All that excess sugar is going to turn into fat inside you anyway. Fat-free yoghurt, cookies, ice cream—they are all the same.
Remember “low fat” does not necessarily mean the food is good for you.
The Truth is in the Labels
Savvy marketers place many misleading labels such as “Enriched”, “Fortified”, “Natural” and “Healthy” on the front of their products to get your attention. The sad truth is that these labels don’t mean much.
To be able to confidently navigate the isles of your grocery store, you need to start paying attention to the nutrition labels at the back. These labels may seem complex, but they are fairly straightforward if you know what to look out for.
Look for how many grams of sugar is in the product. Keep in mind that four grams of sugar make a teaspoon.
Also, have a quick look at the list of ingredients to see if you can spot sugar. Usually, the first three ingredients will make up more than 90% of the product.
Sugar can be hiding among the ingredients under names such as corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, glucose and fructose. (Manufacturers have 56 different names for good ol’ sugar!)
What If I Workout?
The food industry loves to talk about the Calories In-Calories Out approach to weight management. (The energy we get from food is measured in calories.) What this approach means is that you can eat whatever you want as long as you work out enough later.
Although Calories In-Calories Out is a physical law that is a 100% true, it is a very unhelpful way to approach weight management.
That’s because it matters where your calories are coming from. And if your calories are coming from a diet rich in added sugar then you will probably overeat—and your calories in will end up being greater than your calories out.
Imagine making a meal of a Starbucks Frappuccino and a doughnut: you would get almost none of the vitamins and minerals that are essential for your health. Plus this sugary treat will get digested super quickly, leaving you hungry again soon.
If you are often consuming junk food, working out is not going to help you much. Remember that doughnut which your imaginary self just ate? You would need to attend an hour-long yoga class just to burn off those 350 calories! (And we haven’t even talked about that Frappuccino yet.)
The bottom line is that unless you are working out like crazy all the time, you need to stay away from junk food.
Eating Junk is Kinda Sad
I know that I’ve been bashing sugar all this while, and you have probably gotten the point! But added sugar is so culturally ingrained in our lives, that I want to make sure we understand the negative effects of our food choices.
So, for the last time (I promise), this is what happens when you choose a diet rich in added sugar:
- You will be hungry a lot (Sugar gets digested very fast leaving you hungry soon).
- You might be overweight (The calories in are gonna add up fast).
- You could fall sick (You’re gonna be missing out on vitamins and minerals).
I find it funny, in a very sad way, that added sugar can make you overweight yet keep you feeling hungry.
Once we are aware of the meaning of our food choices, it becomes easier to turn down the treats that once seemed impossible to resist. And this is my hope for you.
Do These Ads Make Me Look Fat?
You and I are not robots.
We don’t walk around making everyday decisions based on mathematical calculations. We make decisions based on our emotions and how we feel.
And the food companies know this very well. Coke will ask you to “Open Happiness”; it will not ask you to consume black coloured carbonated water. (Coke also happens to spend close to $4 billion every year to advertise its products.)
We are bombarded every day with thousands of advertisements on the Internet, in magazines, on television, on radio, on billboards and in movies. Food companies will pay your favourite celebrities and sports stars to sell their products, and they will pay actors to wear white coats in advertisements. They will even target kids in their campaigns.
But hey, I’m not saying it’s wrong to make a profit and I’m all in for capitalism. All I’m saying is that no matter how intelligent or educated you may be, it is dangerous to think that advertisements are not affecting you.
The march of consumerism cannot and will not be stopped. The Government is not coming to save you, and big companies are not coming to save you.
You need to save yourself. The antidote to billion-dollar advertising campaigns is information and conscious lifestyle decisions. The answer is self-care.
A Life Post-Sugar
Pause for a moment, and imagine yourself healthy and energetic. Imagine eating food every day that nourishes you and ultimately makes your life extraordinary.
And I know, we all face real-world problems—such as a lack of time, budget issues, motivational challenges—that make us fall short of our health goals.
So I wanna suggest some laid-back steps to eating healthy. Take them as general guidelines, not as rigid rules. Here are the 10 small steps you can take for a life post-sugar.
- Drink more water. Cravings for sweet treats may actually be a sign of dehydration.
- Eat home-cooked meals. Food is meant to be made in the kitchen, not in a factory.
- Reduce packaged food. They have undergone chemical treatments and lost their nutrients.
- Have lots of good stuff. Fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds are amazing.
- Less sugar is better than more. If you put three spoons of sugar in your tea, try using two.
- Try dark chocolate. It has more antioxidants and less sugar, compared to milk chocolate.
- Never diet. If you keep yourself hungry, you’ll soon be holding an empty cup of ice cream.
- Don’t drink your calories. The calories in sugary drinks are difficult to keep track of and add up fast.
- Keep healthy snacks handy. Make it easier for yourself when hunger strikes between meals.
- Don’t enter a grocery store without a list. Those colourful packages are tempting.
Are You an Emotional Eater?
Food is not always about hunger, sometimes it’s about how we are feeling.
When I’m going through a really tough time, I usually turn to chocolates. (Twix is my favourite.) But Twix can’t fix my emotional problems, and it might just add health problems of its own!
Do you need entertainment? You might be using food to deal with boredom. Instead, you can take boredom as a challenge to be more creative with your life.
Do you need a hug? Everybody needs love and affection. And a simple hug can go a long way.
Do you need movement? Stressful jobs create stressed bodies. Relieve the tension at the gym, a yoga class or through sports.
The 80% Rule
Stop stressing over perfection. You don’t need perfection, you simply need to do your best.
The rule is that 80% of the time you eat what is healthy for you, and 20% of the time you eat whatever you feel like eating. Eating junk food is definitely not a sin. So free yourself from the guilt and anxiety around what you have eaten.
Go ahead and give yourself a rich treat once in a while. Just stay away from habitual and mindless consumption.
Over To You…
Coming back to the question: Should we quit sugar? The answer is yes, we should quit added sugar. But this is really the secondary message here.
The more important message is that you need to find the food that nourishes your body and your mind. By choosing healthy food you are respecting yourself and your life goals. You are also protecting yourself from lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
If you have diabetes, I would encourage you to regularly visit your doctor and closely follow their advice.
I wish you a long and healthy life, full of energy and happiness.
What’s your favourite home-cooked meal?