I’ve always had a sweet tooth.
When I was 6, 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 soon as I took my first sip, I was hooked.
At the time, the world didn’t know how much suffering would result from the white powder. And I hadn’t realised that years later I’d be asking, “Should we quit sugar?“
I know that we are talking about something that is an ingredient in some of our favourite foods.
But the rates of obesity are rising all over the world, and added sugar is one of the culprits. Diets rich in added sugar increase your chances of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
If you are reading this, I’m assuming that you too have a sweet tooth and that, like me, you want to live a long, healthy, and productive life. That you want to stay away from doctors, medicines, and surgeries.
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
Why Do We Love Sugar?
Although I fell in love with Coke in the summer of ’95, humans fell in love with sugar, literally, a million years ago.
Before the invention of agriculture, food wasn’t easily available, and it was common to die of starvation. In fact, humans spent most of their time looking for food.
Sugar happens to be a great source of energy, and any food that contained sugar (mostly fruits) could have 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 doorstep.
Our genes (which change extremely slowly) have not gotten the memo and continue to tell us, “Find and eat all the sugar you can get”.
We Can’t Control Ourselves Around Sugar
As anybody who has ever tried to say “no” to a chocolate doughnut can tell you, sugar is 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. Do these words describe your relationship to food?
Eating a sugary snack can initially give you a pleasant burst of energy—a sugar high. But as your blood sugar skyrockets, your body starts to rapidly produce insulin to remove this excess sugar from your blood.
All this insulin that your body produces 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 10 teaspoons of added sugar. Another example is the sugar you added to your morning coffee.
I’m certainly not asking you to give up natural sugar. That’s the sugar that is in fruits, vegetables, grains, milk. These foods are good for you as they come packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre, and protein.
Alright, back to added sugar: it’s hiding in the packaged food that grocery stores sell. I’m talking about the foods that come in boxes, cans, bags, and bottles. 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, yoghurt, breakfast cereals, 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. (Up to 74% of the packaged food in your grocery store has added sugar.) And I know I’ve listed some of your favourite foods here—they are my favourites too—but a global health crisis is a serious business, and it’s time to name names.
Foods You Thought Were Healthy
Everybody wants to be healthy, and health advice is abundant. Unfortunately, a lot of that advice is conflicting and most of it is confusing. Add billion-dollar marketing budgets in 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. They are marketed as full of vitamins, minerals, whole grains, fibre—name a nutrient and your cereal seems to be full of it! But if you looked at the ingredients, it wouldn’t appear so healthy after all. It’s just a sugary dessert.
Breakfast cereals are convenient for a busy lifestyle, but they aren’t healthy. A home-cooked breakfast would be healthy.
Fruit Juice. It’s loaded with added sugar and missing all the fibre that fruits naturally come with. Additionally, it’s easy to have too much of it—if you ate whole fruits you would probably feel full after 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, instead.
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” doesn’t necessarily mean that 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 fronts 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 would need to start paying attention to the nutrition labels at the back. These labels may seem complex but are fairly straightforward once you know what to look for.
Look for how many grams of sugar is in the product. Keep in mind that 4 grams make a teaspoon. Also, have a quick look at the list of ingredients to see if you can spot sugar. The first 3 ingredients usually make up most of the product.
Be sure to look for all the names of sugar—sugar can hide under names such as corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, glucose, and fructose. (Unhappily, manufacturers have 56 different names for sugar.)
What If I Workout?
The food industry promotes the calories in-calories out approach to weight management. What it means is that you can eat whatever you want as long as you work out enough later.
Although conservation of energy is an inviolable physical law, it’s an unhelpful way to approach weight management. That’s because it matters where your calories come from. 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 none of the vitamins and minerals that are essential for your health. Plus, this sugary treat will get digested quickly, leaving you hungry again soon.
If you often consume junk food, working out isn’t 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 you’d still be left with the calories from your frappuccino.
The bottom line is that unless you can workout for many hours a day, you need to stay away from junk food.
Eating Junk Is “Sad”
This is what happens when you choose a diet rich in added sugar:
- You will be hungry a lot. (Sugar gets digested quickly leaving you hungry soon.)
- You might be overweight. (The calories in are going to add up fast.)
- You could fall sick. (You will miss out on vitamins and minerals.)
I find it funny, in a sad way, that added sugar can make you overweight yet keep you feeling hungry.
Once you understand the meaning of your food choices, it becomes easy to turn down the treats that once seemed impossible to resist.
Do These Ads Make Me Look Fat?
You and I aren’t robots. We don’t walk around making everyday decisions based on mathematical calculations. We make decisions based on how we feel.
And the food companies know this very well. Coke will ask you to “open happiness”, not to consume black-coloured, carbonated water. (Coke also happens to spend $4 billion a year on advertising.)
We are bombarded every day with advertisements on the Internet, in magazines, on television, on radio, on billboards, in movies. Food companies will pay your favourite movie and sports stars to sell their products, and they will pay actors to wear white coats in advertisements. They will, even, target kids with their campaigns.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to make a profit. All I’m saying is that no matter how intelligent and educated you may be, it’s dangerous to think that advertisements are not affecting you.
The march of consumerism cannot 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.
A Life Post-Sugar
Pause for a moment, and imagine yourself as healthy and energetic. Imagine eating food every day that nourishes you and, ultimately, makes your life extraordinary.
I know, we all face real-world problems—a lack of time, limited budgets, motivational challenges—that make us fall short of our health goals. So I want to suggest some laid-back steps to eating healthy. Take them as general guidelines, not rigid rules.
Here are 10 small steps you can take for a life post-sugar.
- Drink more water. Cravings for sweet treats could 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 good.
- 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 than 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 quickly.
- Keep healthy snacks handy. Make it easier for yourself when hunger strikes between meals.
- Don’t enter a grocery store without a list. Their colourful packages are tempting.
(The books Integrative Nutrition, The Primal Blueprint, and The UltraMind Solution helped me come up with this list. In fact, this entire article is nothing but a simplified blend of the ideas that I liked best from these insightful books.)
Are You an Emotional Eater?
Integrative Nutrition makes an important point: Food is not always about hunger, sometimes it’s about how we are feeling.
When I’m going through a really tough time, I turn to chocolates—Twix is my favourite. But a Twix can’t fix my emotional problems, and it might just add some health problems to my life.
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 hug can go a long way.
Do you need movement? Stressful jobs create stressed bodies. Relieve the tension at a gym or yoga class, or through sports.
The 80% Rule
Yet another important point from Integrative Nutrition: don’t worry about perfection. You don’t need perfection, you simply need to do your best.
The rule is that 80% of the time you need to eat what is healthy for you, and 20% of the time you can eat whatever you feel like. Eating junk food isn’t a sin. So free yourself from the guilt and anxiety around what you have eaten.
Go ahead and give yourself a treat once in a while—just stay away from habitual, mindless consumption.
Over To You…
Coming back to the question: should you quit sugar? The answer is “Yes, you 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 follow their advice.)
I wish you a long and healthy life, full of energy and happiness.
What’s your favourite home-cooked meal?