Forget coffee and desserts. Even breads and granola bars come loaded with sugar these days, and we get addicted to it unwittingly. Shonali Muthalaly talks to experts who insist that the addiction must be fought. Thankfully, it can be!

How much sugar do you have in a day? Two spoons with coffee? Three spoons, if you count dessert. So five in total?

Not really. Even if you’re a health nut. Actually, especially if you’re health nut. Your healthy breakfast cereal contains sugar. So do your virtuous digestive biscuits. And your righteous granola bars. Replacing aerated sodas with energy drinks? Well, that’s merely swapping ten teaspoons of sugar for 6.

Raj Ganpath, co-founder and coach at The Quad, a Chennai-based boot camp, which promotes optimal fitness and sustainable wholesome nutrition, warns his clients that what’s considered ‘normal’ today is far from healthy. “Today’s normal amount is in reality excessive and today’s occasional is in reality frequent,” he says, adding, “The one teaspoon of sugar in your coffee is not going to kill you.” It’s your daily choices that make you unhealthy.

Even as sugar is being hidden better and better in processed food, Ganpath says we are getting “dumber and dumber about what we eat”. He says, “We choose to believe the marketing because it’s convenient. It’s convenient to pour out cereal and milk out of the bowl and believe you are giving your children a nutritious breakfast. Even though it is the equivalent of handing them a chocolate bar and a multivitamin.”

As food manufacturers have discovered, back, sugar makes everything taste better. “A lot of what we eat today is made in a lab, not a kitchen. It’s engineered, and there is a lot of research going into it. Manufacturers find ways to layer sugar, salt and fat to make it difficult to resist,” says Ganpath, adding “And they have discovered that sugar makes everything taste better. Ten years ago, things never used to be so sweet. We don’t realise this because the changes have been gradual. Bread used to be flour, yeast, water, salt. Now it has 30 to 40 ingredients, including sugar. Apples used to be tart. Over the last 120 years, we have selectively bred them to make them sweet. Today everything is homogenised with a sugar-bias. Even nachos have sugar.”

“If it has a label, it stays off my table,” says Jill Escher, author of Farewell, Club Perma-Chub: A Sugar Addict’s Guide to Easy Weight Loss. Jill, who moved from a size 12 to a size six 6 dress size in four months after giving up sugar runs the ‘End Sugar Addiction’ blog, which explains to people just how addictive sugar can be. “Processed food tends to be replete with sugars in various forms. If a food didn’t come from fairly directly from a plant or animal, it does not belong in your diet.”

Dr Sheela Nambiar, obstetrician and gynaecologist, who runs a fitness programme called 'Training For Life' in Chennai and Udhagamandalam, explains why you should, in particular, watch out for ‘fat-free’ food. The author of the recently launched book Get Sizewise, she says, “When manufacturers take out the fat, the taste goes down. So they add a lot of sugar to compensate.” Start reading labels, and you’ll notice hidden sugar everywhere. “It’s in sauces and mixes. In ketchup. In packaged yoghurt…”

“Sugar is intoxicating — it floods users with a mild euphoria that, for reasons of both brain chemistry and hormonal actions, is highly addictive,” says Escher. “Willpower is a myth, a very destructive myth because it places the blame on the victim and not the perpetrator. Sugar urges stem from an abnormally altered biochemistry. To overcome sugar addiction and create the foundation for healthy eating, we need to reclaim our innate biochemistry from the invading forces of processed food, sugar, and grains. A normal biochemistry, based on eating real, unprocessed food, has no need for refined sugars.”

She adds, “The idea of sugar as a staple food is a modern construct and our distorted bodies show the scars of this relentless assault.” Ganpath says, “It’s not normal to eat dessert every day. But any meal at a restaurant now comes with dessert. Coffee is served with cookies… It’s hard to imagine being addicted to sugar, but picture a world with no sugar and try to fit anything you do into it, and you’ll see how it makes sense.”

When Escher gave up sugar three years ago, it wasn’t easy. I was 45 years old, and at only five feet tall, packed on about 30 excess pounds… I knew deep inside I had become addicted to sugar, and that it was making me fat, sluggish, and foggy-headed.” She adds, “My problem wasn’t too many calories or insufficient willpower, but a nearly lifelong chemical dependence on refined sugars which had sickened by body and hijacked my brain.” Although the first few weeks were challenging, she says, “I started feeling better after just a few days. My cravings began to lift, and I began to feel more nourished with my new way of eating… Weight loss happened fast—almost two pounds a week. The benefits went far beyond anything I could have imagined: going from size 12 to size 6 in clothing; clear, glowing skin; a more focused mind; better sleep; receding arthritis in my spine; better vision; great cholesterol numbers (even though I ate plenty of dietary fats); and more energy and zest for work, family, life, and projects.

According to the report India’s Sugar policy and the World Sugar Economy submitted at the FAO International Sugar Conference, Fiji 2012, the consumption in India is growing rapidly. While per capita consumption of sugar in India is at 20.2 kg, which is that’s lower than the global average of 24.8 kg, it’s a steep increase from 4.9 kg in 1963. (The global average on the other hand shows an increase from 17.3 kg in 1963.)

The fact that we’re now eating more refined sugars, including high fructose corn syrup, makes it additionally worrying. “These are the products of complex, highly mechanised chemical and physical processes of extraction. Our bodies were not designed to metabolise these foreign substances,” says Escher. “The problem is not just calories,” says Dr Nambiar. “Your insulin spikes as soon as you consume it.” This in turn triggers low blood sugar, which exhausts you and triggers more sugar cravings. “Artificial sweeteners aren’t much better,” says Dr. Nambiar. “The jury is out on aspartame. Stevia is the safest as as it’s natural. But ideally you should train your palate to get used to less sugar.”

“I never ask clients to quit sugar,” says Ganpath. “They instantly stop listening to me. Really, how long are you going to live free from sugar in a world that celebrates sugar in everything from your morning coffee to your bedtime antacid?” He adds, “But if you need chocolate to get through the day, it’s time you realised you’re sugar-dependent. Your body doesn’t need sugar — it gives you nothing.” What about those celebrated ‘feel-good hormones’ released by sugary food? He counters, “You get that from patting a dog.”

Jill Escher’s list for sugar-addicts:

1. Avoid the “white stuff,” including refined sugar, flour, most starches (easy on the rice and potatoes), and processed food, which invariably contains blood sugar-spiking junk. Starches are nothing more than long-chain sugars which convert to sugars during digestion. A bowl of pasta is little more than a bowl of sugar.

2. Eat plenty of dietary fats, including butter, ghee, lard, avocados, coconut oil, and olive oil.

3. Avoid vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and canola oil. These highly refined oils cause inflammation.

4. Eat plenty of raw veggies – always have a bowl of sliced and yummy veggies in your fridge to snack on (I tend to have cucumber, carrots, red peppers, celery).

5. Donʼt eat late at night. For example, try to eat dinner by 7pm, and then go at least 12 hours without food, having breakfast no earlier than 7am. When I say “weight loss happens in your sleep,” Iʼm not kidding — you need to give your digestion and hormones a break if you want the body to start using fat stores for energy.

6. Drink water, preferably lemon water, throughout the day. Stay hydrated, carry your water bottle around with you. If you need a bit of sweetness, add a pinch of stevia.