Don’t succumb to the sugar fix

Why having a sweet tooth is such bad news for your health


Ankit Tyagi (left); and Pankaj Renjhen. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Ankit Tyagi (left); and Pankaj Renjhen. Photos: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Those with a sweet tooth understand that yearning for a cheesecake. A chocolate person simply needs a block of 70% dark after dinner. In winters, we crave hot jalebis and gajar ka halwa. But scientists are now comparing the craving for sugar with cravings for cigarettes, alcohol, even cocaine. 

“In my mind, sugar has been a narcotic since time immemorial and is the single worst thing you can put in your body,” says Vishakha Shivdasani, a Mumbai-based doctor specializing in medical nutrition and lifestyle ailments and a Mint columnist. It causes obesity, gives you heart disease, and taxes the liver and kidneys. She explains that the drug-like effect comes from insulin fluctuation. You eat sweets, blood sugar spikes, then falls, so you need to eat more to get “high” again. 

A blanket ban on all types of sugar, however, isn’t just impractical, it would also be unhealthy.

Lovneet Batra, clinical nutritionist at Fortis La Femme, New Delhi, says sugar is harmful because of the way we eat it. “It is a fuel and our RBCs (red blood cells) and brain survive on it.” If we delete complex sugars (jaggery, sugary fruits) from our diet completely, then we will feel fatigued most of the time. However, sugar also does come in forms that are not obvious. “All foods are broken down into sugar, which is essentially carb,” explains Batra. She says, adding, that we can group sugars into simple and complex carbs. “Simple sugars get absorbed by the system readily, for instance refined flour, which has a high glycaemic index (the relative ability to convert carbs into glucose) that causes an insulin spike.” Something like a dalia, a high-fibre complex carb, won’t do that.

Our primary source—refined sugar—is a terrible choice, she says, because it comes with emulsifying and texturing agents, which turn it into a pure chemical that taxes the kidneys.

The best form of sugar is jaggery because it is also a solid form of sugar, which means it goes through the system more slowly than honey, and contains a bit of iron and other minerals.

This doesn’t mean honey is bad. It does have antibacterial and anti-viral properties, which make it better than white sugar. However, because honey is liquid, it gets absorbed by the system quickly. This quick absorption causes a sharper sugar spike than jaggery, which is absorbed by the body slowly, keeping the sugar and insulin levels balanced. So honey makes it unsuitable for diabetics and women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), explains Shivdasani.

Replacing sugar with chemical substitutes, however, is possibly the worst thing you can do—they are known to cause cancer. 

So, if you want to indulge, look for the right combinations. The best combination of sugar is with a bit of protein and fat, like a rasgulla or moong dal halwa. Batra explains that protein and fat “hold on” to the sugar, so it’s not released quickly into the bloodstream. “This is why you feel satisfied with just a bit of moong dal halwa as compared to any other dessert,” she says. 

With this in mind, the good guide to sugar would be: Eat it in the morning or before a workout and never before bed. Choose a solid complex sugar like jaggery. If you have to eat dessert, then combine sugar with protein and fat. Say goodbye to liquid sugars, including sugary drinks, agave and maple syrups, and canned fruit juices. 

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Ankit Tyagi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Ankit Tyagi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

When Ankit Tyagi quit sugar for two weeks

Founder and chief operating officer, North India, Sotheby’s International Realty

“I don’t believe in too much abstinence or indulgence. Weekdays are to eat healthy and weekends to binge,” says Tyagi.

Week 1

“Skipping sugar wasn’t as much of a problem as I anticipated. I didn’t feel low on energy; if anything my mind felt a bit clearer. I stopped eating toast at breakfast because bread is also a simple carb and ate unsweetened ‘dalia’ and oats to make the change more impactful. Lunch is simple dal-sabzi. However, I did crave the two blocks of chocolate that I used to eat after dinner. I substituted it with ‘saunf’, but wasn’t satisfied. I replaced my evening snack of sandwich or Maggi with a handful of nuts or a fruit. And yes, I had a couple of drinks but it was just vodka and water. I think with sugar it was more of a mental yearning. I missed the masala tea that I indulged in a few times a week, and the biscuits that went with it.”

Week 2

“The second week was much easier as far as cravings were concerned. You could say that I almost didn’t miss the bit of chocolate after dinner and my masala ‘chai’. I have stayed off sugary tea and biscuits. But I did drink two pints of beer (though I stayed away from chips and nachos as sides).

In these two weeks, I have lost almost 2 kilos on the same routine. I didn’t feel fatigued and could carry on with my work and gym routine. Other than the weight loss, I felt that my digestion and even sleep was much better without refined carbs or sugar.”

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Pankaj Renjhen. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Pankaj Renjhen. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

When Pankaj Renjhen quit sugar for two weeks

Managing director, retail services, Jones Lang LaSalle

“A few years back a doctor told me that I needed to take care of my body and get off sugar, refined carbs and dairy completely. I followed that religiously for a year and a half but now I’m back to a regular (albeit healthy) diet. This sugar fast seemed like the best way to detox after Diwali.”

Renjhen is a fitness freak but indulges in some drink and dessert every now and then. 

Week 1

“For this week I started my day with a smoothie made with four portions of fruit, some flaxseeds, almonds, and two slices of multigrain toast. Lunch was a simple Indian home-made meal, as was dinner. While I’m very good at controlling cravings, when it’s in front of me I just have to take a bite. So when my wife offered me some dessert at a party I couldn’t help indulging. However, when I went out for dinner (usually thrice a week), I chose Indian over Chinese or Continental, because if you order tandoori roti with your food you avoid refined flour and MSG.”

Week 2

“This week was easier, I didn’t cheat at all. Of course, I did treat myself to a couple of blocks of dark chocolate after dinner but it was sugar- and sugar-substitute free and was made with stevia, a natural sugar substitute. I also had some whisky but without any mixers.

“In two weeks I have lost 2 kilos, all festival weight caused by too much dessert and drink. The positive effects were more pronounced when I gave up refined sugar for a year and a half. During that time I lost 6 kilos and 3 inches off my waistline. I felt like my energy was more steady—I felt as fresh at 3pm as I did when I first woke up in the morning.”

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