Bitter truths about sugar

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ISSUE Most of us find sweets irresistible. But do we realise that added sugar only piles on the calories, leaving us vulnerable to lifestyle diseases?

SWEET SENSATION Sugar invites a host of health problems
SWEET SENSATION Sugar invites a host of health problems

The guest, not very old, said she would have tea, without sugar. “No diabetes,” she added. “I drink several cups a day. Without sugar I needn't worry about piling up those no-good calories.” Talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (probably after losing a push-up contest to Michelle Obama) declared she was going on a “sugar cleanse.” She would shake off all refined sugars from her diet. You won't catch her biting into a piece of black forest cake.

We can't always buy, cook or order food with a nutrition manual in hand. But about sugar we can be sure: Added sugar (AS) is unhealthy. In packaged and open eatables, in milk drinks and colas we take AS, an unnatural substance made through industrial processes.

Why AS is bad

“Sugar, a carbohydrate occurring naturally in food is a source of energy,” says Dr. Varsha, Founder /Chair, Indian Institute of Nutritional Sciences. “But, when added, it is “dead” food.” Added sugar suppresses the immune system (reduces capacity to fight diseases); decreases HDL (high density lipoprotein – good cholesterol) levels and simultaneously increases triglyceride levels (fat component in blood), putting us at high risk for heart disease; it triggers the oxidative damage degenerative process and the glycation degenerative process, resulting in diseases from cataract to cancer. Excess sugar is harmful by itself, and once you have them, you've no space for nutritious foods. “Sugar made for added consumption is “manmade poison!” she declared.

AS is high in calories, and not filling. So you keep spooning in sone-papdi and gain weight. AS triggers inflammation, digs dental cavities, blocks the release of human growth hormone, which slows the aging process. Its molecules enter the bloodstream, and hook up with protein and fat molecules. These glycated molecules produce toxic compounds called glycation-end-products or AGEs. These throw the aging process into fast-forward, doing irreversible damage.

Sugar raises insulin levels. Put sugar into your body, and blood sugar levels zoom up. Your pancreas steps in, releasing insulin to help clear sugar from blood into cells. Over time, it takes more and more insulin to get the job done. Eventually, the pancreas may stop responding to the call. If you're hypoglycemic (reactive/otherwise), sugary foods cause insulin release and then you crash. You need more sugar to feel better. It's a vicious cycle.

We're born with a preference for a sweet taste. Infants stop crying when you dab honey on their tongue. Love for a sweet taste was once an evolutionary advantage, say evo-biologists. It might have led ancient wanderers to seek out sweet, calorie-rich ripe fruits. In our workstation-bound lives, sugar-love becomes physical dependence. Scientists aren't discussing withdrawal symptoms, but gorging on mysorepak can be habit-forming.

“We've been taught to show hospitality and affection through laddoos and halwas,” says Dr. Kousalya Nathan, Anti-Aging Lifestyle Consultant. “Sugar and sentiments go hand in hand, love flows through phirnees and kheers.” Emotional eating of food with AS gives us an instant high. “It's a form of addiction,” she insists, “if we find it difficult to stop eating till the box is empty. Which is why more of us are getting Diabetes Mellitus-2.”

Is AS=Diabetes?

“Diabetes is all about sugar – blood sugar,” says Dr. Kousalya. “Excess sugar causes obesity, then insulin resistance, which, if left untreated impairs glucose intolerance, ends as DM-2.” Paediatricians worry about the big rise in obesity in childhood which has coincided with a major increase in the amount of simple sugar kids consume in juices, sodas, sweetened cereals and sweets. And reduced exercise.

“Consumption of excess sugar not only accelerates biological aging but also significantly affects facial aging,” says Dr. Kousalya. “Cellular changes due to increased glycation accelerate the appearance of wrinkles, make skin dry/rough and lose elasticity. They increase sensitivity to sun damage, stimulate oxidation.” Cut down AS to prevent biological and premature aging.

A plate of gulab-jamun is not going to show up as a wrinkle or lead to multiple-organ failure. Major setbacks happen when your diet is chronically high in sugar. WHO suggests 10 per cent of total calories/50 grams of sugar for normal health. If you're overweight, have other risk-factors for heart disease/diabetes, keep it closer to five per cent. Some simple sugars and protein after a work-out are good. In a perfect world, those “simple sugars” would be fresh fruit.

Geeta Padmanabhan




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