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How you can have your cake and eat it too

For years, sugar has been painted as the ultimate food villain. The truth, however, is somewhat layered 

We can learn to live with and love our sugary treats without letting them get in the way of our health or waistlines
We can learn to live with and love our sugary treats without letting them get in the way of our health or waistlines (Unsplash)

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For some reason, it's stuck in people's minds, lodged like a piece of (sugar-free) gum on their shoe - sugar is the cause of weight gain.And yet, most people fail miserably at giving up sugar.It's tempting and seductive, tasty and addictive, and there is something about it, like a novel you can't put down or a television show you can't turn off, that giving it up seems impossible. 

Over the years, I have tirelessly stood in the middle ground of "all or nothing," "good versus bad," "healthy vs unhealthy," and "sugar-free vs sugar." I have tried to put the power of choice back into people's minds and live happily balanced with their healthy food choices and occasional sweet indulgence.We can learn to live with and love our sugary treats without letting them get in the way of our health or waistlines. 

Also read: Why counting calories can often fail you

The first step in creating a better relationship with sugar is understanding sugar's place in our human evolution.Then, compare that with the reality on our supermarket shelves today.And finally, once armed with the facts, we can put systems in place to kick the habit and learn to live in a world of "happy medium."

Let's start by going back in time, way back, let's say a few millennia when humans were foragers.Sugar was found packed in fruit, alongside nutrients that give the body energy.This form of sugar was generally found in seasonal fruits, berries, honey, and maple syrups, and once they were out of season, you had to wait until the following year to indulge in them once again.Since this sugar came coupled with the fibre from the food, it was harder to overeat: Fibre takes longer to digest and fills up our stomachs.Processed sugary food today, however, is quick to digest. So you feel empty and unsatisfied when you eat these,  making it easy to overeat your calories in pursuit of satisfaction.

But what makes sugar unique to humans is the hedonic reward - not just its fuel.Our ancestor's brains evolved to associate sweet foods with the energy provided so that we were more inclined to seek out these foods for fuel. Our brains started connecting the dots by creating what's called a "reward pathway".When repeated enough times, any action becomes an ingrained habit in our psyche.

According to Amy Reichelt, BrainsCAN Research Associate, "when we eat sweet foods, the brain's reward system - called the mesolimbic dopamine system - gets activated.Dopamine is a brain chemical released by neurons and can signal that an event was positive.When the reward system fires, it reinforces behaviours - making it more likely for us to carry out these actions again." 

This reward system served our ancestors well, evidenced in part by how we are still alive and functioning as a human race today.However, the evolutionary benefit of craving sugar doesn't stand a chance against modern, processed foods.

Also read: Can you really go into starvation mode?

Modern humans still crave that delicious, sugary hit of sweet foods to provide our energy.However, we no longer rely on seasonal fruits and berries for our sugar intake - we have "added sugar" in its place.As a result, we are stocking our fridges with sodas, sugary biscuits in the cupboard (just in case, you know, we feel the slightest inkling of hunger), ice cream in the freezer, and if all of that fails, we have Swiggy will deliver our sugar hit to us in 30 minutes. 

Even the humble ketchup hasn't avoided added sugar.Some brands of ketchup have one teaspoon (4g) of sugar per one tablespoon of ketchup.Of course, that's just ketchup - imagine the added sugar found in flavoured yoghurt, cans of soda, granola bars, and baked goods.It adds up at the speed of lightning.

Our food production methods and reliance on processed foods allow us to have it instantly and effortlessly.Coupled with the fact that highly processed sugary foods don't satisfy our hunger for very long, we live in the perfect conditions for weight gain.

The World Health Organization states that the daily recommendation of total sugar is between 21g-42g (5-10 teaspoons).Practically speaking, if we were eating just fruit as our source of sugar, that's two apples or three cups of strawberries.However, it's safe to say that most people are shooting well beyond this recommendation.

According to Samir Faruque, author of "The Dose Makes the Poison," as of 2016, Americans' total daily intake of sugar is 92.5g (23 teaspoons).Likewise, according to a 2015 article published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine, titled "Sugar, Salt, Fat, and Chronic Disease Epidemic in India," Indians consume approximately 42g (10 teaspoons) a day.However, that amount could be much higher as it excludes all forms of additional sugar, which is found in vast quantities in almost all processed foods. 

Sugar is so ingrained in our daily lives that reducing reliance on it is as tricky as unknotting a twisted necklace.However, it's an unrealistic proposition to give up sugar altogether for most people.Ultimately, sugar itself won't lead to weight gain.Like everything, it's how much you choose to consume.Instead, re-evaluate the kinds of sugar in your diet, then actively eliminate or reduce the unnecessary ones. The strategy you decide to minimise the sugar in your diet will be as unique as your diet itself. 

You can start by creating what's called a "Food Awareness Journal," where you write down everything you eat over 2-3 days and find the sources of sugar.Then, based on what you consume, you may reduce your dessert consumption from every day to once or twice a week, minimise the sugar that goes into your morning coffee, or find naturally sweet options like pieces of fruit instead of chocolate. 

Jen Thomas is a woman's weight loss coach based out of Chennai, India

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