Bitter- Sweet: Part 1

WARNING: THIS BLOG MAY CONTAIN INFORMATION YOU JUST DONT WANT TO KNOW/READ. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.

So the warning seems pretty severe, I know. But I’m going to be talking about two things that people seem to get very defensive about- sugar and salt. For the past few months, my brother and I have been doing research and trying to find ways to relate to my mom about her salt and sugar intake in order to move towards a healthier lifestyle together. But trying to get my 59 year old, Punjabi mom to quit things like Indian sweets and sprinkling extra salt on all my ‘bland’ recipes is like trying to pull teeth from a cheetah. She is now using the excuse “ I got my blood tests done, and my blood glucose was normal, so I can eat as much sugar as I want.” I hope to illuminate here the many misconceptions surrounding the health risks associated with excessive sugar intake, particularly the one that my mom clings to which is if you don’t have diabetes yet, you don’t have to worry about how much sugar you eat.

The most challenging barrier that has been encountered is that sugar and salt are so deeply embedded in culture, tradition and comfort. How many comfort foods can you list off that are sweet? There are many examples of how culture dictates an increased sugar intake and also an increasing trend of type 2 Diabetes and obesity in the Punjabi and East Indian communities (of course, these trends may be prominent in other ethno-cultural groups, but for the sake of this blog, I will focus on the community that I have made the most observations about). First is the importance and obligation our community has of sharing a happy moment or special occasion by distributing and enjoying sweets, and secondly is the expectation of finding an abundance of sweets at every social engagement, party or at temple.   The problem is not simply the attitudes and willingness of one person to change; as much as I bug my mom about making better choices, I understand that dietary choices are so psychosocial and more than a little influenced by what we would call peer pressure. The perceptions, expectations, and attitudes of society towards food have such a strong influence that despite our best efforts the continuous struggle against the ‘norms’ can often be overwhelming.

As a recent nurse with an even longer history of working within the healthcare system I have learned about the basic consequences of too much sugar- your body can develop insulin resistance potentially leading to Type 2 Diabetes; you could gain excessive weight because of the extra calories and the fast conversion of sugar in your blood so that you get the sugar spikes and crashes that screw up your metabolism (for further information, please feel free to contact me J ) So for somebody like my mom who isn’t diabetic but is trying to lose weight, keeping blood glucose levels (i.e. the amount of broken down sugar in your blood) stable is important for weight loss as much as it is for preventing the development of future health problems. Furthermore, my brother sent me an article recently which was published in the New York Times in April 2011, written by Gary Taubes (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?_r=1) about the toxicity of sugar. That’s right- toxicity. Often a word associated with drugs, and harmful chemicals, toxicity was the conclusion reached about the effects of sugar on our population in today’s food culture.

The article not summarizes findings about how sugar may be the dietary root of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease and even some cancers.   It’s a compelling and eye opening read, and goes much more in depth on this topic. Not only have some studies found links between elevated insulin (the hormone our body uses to control the levels of sugar in our blood) to the spread of cancers, but insulin resistance is a key factor in the condition Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) which is of particular concern to females of mine and future generations because PCOS is a heavy contributor to the risk of infertility in women. I have recently consulted an endocrinologist myself because of possible PCOS, and one of the key preventative measures the doctor prescribed was to follow a diabetic-like diet (i.e. LOW SUGAR) in order to keep my blood glucose levels stable and to lose weight. I don’t have diabetes but maintaining my blood glucose and preventing insulin resistance has become important in ways I never would have considered before.

The problem isn’t just that we enjoy sweet things- I would consider giving up all sweet things to be an incredibly difficult if not impossible ordeal. I enjoy the process, the bonding, and the comfort that I get from enjoying a delicious baked good, or even from Indian Sweets (in moderation, of course- can’t be a bad example for my mom 😉 ) The real problem is the quantity in which our society consumes sugar which has increased with the introduction of large food companies and processed foods-   nowadays the majority of the sugar we consume is HIDDEN. Disguised by words that the average consumer doesn’t even recognize such as sucrose and high- fructose corn syrup, the end result is a product which increases our blood glucose levels and ultimately our insulin resistance.

So here are some strategies that I’ve tried to slowly incorporate into my household that may work for you as well:

Question food traditions- where do they come from, and are there acceptable alternatives? For example, we recently held a party for family and friends at our home, and my mom was getting ready to make a large batch of Indian sweets. When I asked her why we had to make sweets and serve them even when we were trying to cut back on sugar ourselves, she simply said:   Because our guests will expect it. It’s tradition. So I offered up an alternative- serve watermelon, mango and cantaloupe salad as a dessert instead, and use the opportunity to be an example for our friends and families on making healthy substitutions. It’s not always going to work- even for that party, my mom still had her sister bring a small container of sweets, to serve to those who really wanted it. But the point was that with a healthy alternative, most people chose the fruit and we didn’t have leftover sweets for weeks to come in our house.

Read the ingredient list and the Nutrition Information Label- so now that you’ve read this (and hopefully the associated article as well), I’m sorry but we can’t claim ignorance anymore. As I said previously, we all have our cravings, and our comfort foods that we just can’t live without. But being conscious and aware of what’s actually going in our bodies can sometimes change our perspectives on these foods, and also open our eyes to the quantity of sugars that we eat so that we may make more informed decisions and have better control.

Eat natural- we here at Lipstick and Politics have emphasized this point time and again, but here it is again. Eating as naturally as possible (that is, eating as few processed and packaged foods as possible) is not only great for the environment, the ecosystem, and our overall health, but it is also the number one way to avoid hidden sugar and control our total intake.

Be sure to watch for Part 2 of this blog, where I elaborate on the health concerns regarding salt, and more specifically sodium. And please congratulate yourselves- despite the warning, you chose to become aware and awareness is the first step to change. And change will lead to a healthier tomorrow   J