I remember “Nana,” my maternal grandpa, who lived up to 85 years of age, who had four teaspoons of sugar in his cup of tea. He would love sweets and would hog them whenever my granny made them during festivals. In India, we celebrate every festival with fanfare and we have too many of them! Grandpa was a tall, thin and lanky man. He had no chronic disease, no heart problem, no high blood pressure and no diabetes: a healthy man by all standards. He passed away on the operating table during a simple hernia operation because of some anesthesia complication and not because of any disease inflicted upon him for eating too much sugar.
Is sugar really a big bad wolf in relation to health?
One thing probably kept him healthy all through his life was walking. He would walk to work and walk to the library to bring home James Bond stories written by Ian Fleming to read in his spare time. Perry Mason was his favorite character from the books penned by Erle Stanley Gardner. He read all the possible thrillers and mysteries that he could lay hands on while sipping several cups of tea laden with sugar and milk. And he would do the same when he was busy analyzing stocks and shares in the newspaper. Sugar kept his brain alive as long as he lived.
My father-in-law, a doctor by profession, lived until the age of 92. My ma-in-law would make ‘sheera’, a sweet made of wheat flour, ghee and sugar, everyday for breakfast. He ate moong (letil), khakhra (roasted wheat flour roti) and sheera each day before he started his work. Think about this. Everyone at home had milk with sugar, tea with sugar and milk, and had sweets on festivals. It was the time and when even God’s ‘Prasad’ (an offering to God) was filled with sugar – ‘laddoo’, ‘peda’, ‘kheer’ (a milk sweet) and many more laced with nuts in Hindu homes.
I am sure there will be many like me who would have such stories to share. There is definitely a bond between sugar and health. Now what I do not understand is what’s with this sugar story? Why is it that scientists and health professionals are branding sugar as the villain? Scientists say glucose is brain food. In fact, glucose is the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. Then how is it harmful to people who are in normal health and who are not diabetic? How is it linked with Alzheimer’s disease? Is sugar really a big bad wolf in relation to health?
Sugar is addictive, say health experts. It is true that several research reports have associated sugar intake with obesity, cardiovascular disease or ageing, and rightly so because today we eat foods that contain too much ‘added’ sugar. What is sugar? In plain words, it is a crystalline carbohydrate that gives the foods their sweet taste. And it comes in the form of glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose and sucrose – the table sugar. Fruits, vegetables and other foods contain natural sugars: glucose, fructose and lactose. Milk and other dairy products too contain lactose. Sweetened processed food – such as fruit drinks, soft drinks, cakes, chocolates, and confectionaries – all are sources of added sugars.
This is the age to remain trim and slim. And the first thing that comes to our mind is to cut down on our sugar intake. Many of us turn to artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose and aspartame as an alternative to sugar. But according to the latest research, even these zero-calorie sweeteners can lead to diabetes and obesity. Yet, stevia for instance, is shown to improve blood pressure and glucose tolerance while xylitol is said to prevent tooth decay. Perhaps choosing the type of sweetener is important.
The confusing aspect here is, do we need to eliminate sugar completely from our diet or not? On March 4, 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new guideline, which recommends adults and children should reduce their daily intake of free sugars (monosaccharaides such as glucose, fructose and disaccharides such as sucrose) to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5 per cent – about 25grams (6 teaspoons) per day – would provide additional health benefits.
Interestingly, the WHO guideline does not refer to the sugars in fresh fruits, vegetables and natural sugar present in the milk, because there is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars. So it’s all about the ‘hidden’ sugars.
With so much talk about sugar, think back in time. Our elders did not eat out. They ate home cooked food. They did not indulge in processed foods. There were no junk foods or foods with hidden sugar to lure them around during their time. There were not many salad dressings, marinades and sauces or flavored yogurts to pick from. The sugar for them came from sugar cane, raw honey, ‘gur’ or ‘jaggery’ and coconut sugar. And the best part was that they ate sugar in the most natural way and burnt it with exercise included as daily chores.
I do agree with the rest of the medical community that the key to a healthy living is moderation. Anything in excess is poison and it comes with too many negative health concerns. It is the amount and quantity that matters. If we consume more sugar than necessary, we must learn to burn those extra calories or go back in time and adopt our grandparents’ lifestyle minus the comfort gadgets that we have today to make our life easy!