The festive season is
upon us, so we are biding a (hopefully temporary) goodbye to diet and exercise. Hmmm... on second thoughts, keep the exercise schedule going. We like to eat laddus, don't fancy turning into one!
Our festivals have always been a high-calorie affair and demand serious attention to portion control. Looking away from hot, crunchy jalebis, soft pedas rolled in sugar granules or juicy Motichoor laddus takes a huge amount of self-control! Heck yes! Don't go denying yourself a laddu or two, but flex your will power and self-control muscle when picking wisely. According to nutritionist Kejal Sheth, Founder of Nutrivity.in, the nutritional value of one teaspoon sugar is about 20 calories. Sugar in whatever form – white, table, granulated or even refined – has a bad rep, and rightly so, seconds dietician Nmami Agarwal, Founder and CEO of Nmami Life. The lovable laddus and other mithais, and only pushing you closer to lifestyle diseases, such as obesity and weight gain, diabetes, heart diseases, liver abnormalities, a decline in cognitive skills and premature ageing. Not cool.
The joke’s on you if you think you are only consuming ‘sugar’ in the form of sweetmeats. Sugar and its hidden forms have insidious ways of hiding in your packaged food, added to nutritional supplements, sauces, energy bars and vitamin waters. If you read the nutrition labels carefully, sugar is hiding behind 56 aliases, in places you’d least expect. Hiding as starch, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, lactose maltose, or even high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) or behind complicated names such as demerara sugar, dextran or panocha. We don't mean to trigger a sugar anxiety, but even sugar’s aliases have aliases! The World Health Organisation recommends limiting sugar to just 5 per cent of your total calories. That would mean not more than two to three tablespoons of sugar a day for men, and about one tablespoon of sugar for women, explains Sheth. But can we stop at just one gulab jamun? (My FitnessPal pegs the calorie count of this ball of delight dunked in sugar at 143 calories—that would take you 21 minutes of cycling or 14 minutes of running to burn!).
Also read: 5 books on sugar everyone must read
Calling sugar junkies
“Sugar addiction is way more common than you might think. It triggers the feel-good regions of your brain, leaving you to crave more, but for no nutrition at all,” explains Agarwal. If you’re someone who can’t put an end to this toxic relationship with sugar, the next best and obvious step would be to limit consumption and practice moderation. And, make the smart switch to natural substitutes.
Also read: All the dope on artificial sweeteners
Store-bought artificial sweeteners may be the first to pop in your mind but hold your horses, or sachets. There is a catch to the sugar-free label—from sodas to sweeteners. They may have fewer calories, but they come with other risks. “Artificial sweeteners under the names of aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose are synthetically produced and processed and can alter the gut microbiome and disrupt digestion. They are also known to cause dizziness, diarrhoea, bloating or inflammation,” Agarwal adds.
If you’re sufficiently convinced to make a sugar-shift in your life, here are some nutritionist-approved healthy options for ya’ll.
Also read: Diabetic's guide to survive the festive season
Fruits contain natural sugars sucrose and fructose. However, they are in moderate quantities and along with natural fibres, these sugars are released gradually in your bloodstream, unlike the spike that refined sugar gives you. Fruits also offer minerals, vitamins, good carbs—making them safe for diabetics too, besides being delicious for everyone! Sheth recommends pureeing fruits like bananas, chickoos, dates and apples – which can then be used to make cakes, halwas, kheers, malpuas and even popsicles. Not forgetting fruits like pumpkins and pineapples which are great ingredients for pies too.
The most popular among natural sugar substitutes, stevia is a naturally occurring leaf that has an extremely strong natural sweetness – a little goes a long way. Available in the form of dried, crushed leaves as well as liquid or powder, this low-calorie sweetener can be substituted with sugar for making syrups in case of festive treats like jalebis, gulab jamuns and kala jamuns. Be warned, stevia has an acquired taste, however, it ought to be given a fair shot.
Also read: Do you know the truth behind that sugar rush?
The same plant that your tequila is made from, agave has been used by health food enthusiasts since a very long time. While many argue that agave is no different from another type of refined sugar and warn against its excessive use, the saving grace, for diabetics and those watching blood glucose levels, is its low glycemic index in comparison to other types of sugar. Treat yourself to some agave-starring shrikhand, halwas, sheeras, barfis, kheers or even laddus without spiking your blood sugar levels!
Also read: Barfis and its many avatars
Jaggery or Gur
Although both jaggery and sugar are obtained from sugarcane and contain almost the same number of calories, unlike sugar, jaggery doesn’t offer “empty” calories, explains Agarwal. It has minerals, iron, magnesium and potassium, making it a better alternative to refined sugar. Add a touch of sweetness and colour to desi mithais such as laddus and barfis with jaggery.
The dark syrupy liquid left behind when sugar is extracted out of sugarcane is molasses. Available in three grades, with the first two being fairly sweet, while the third, blackstrap molasses, is the most intense. Despite boasting of high sugar content and distinct flavour, blackstrap molasses is a rich source of iron, minerals and vitamins. Two tablespoons of blackstrap molasses contain 116 calories (versus XX in sugar), informs Sheth. When substituting molasses for sugar, use 1 1/3 cups molasses for every cup sugar, and reduce the amount of liquid in your recipe by at least 5 tablespoons.
Produced by boiling down sap from specific maple trees, maple syrup is often touted as a healthy alternative to sugar. However, one tablespoon contains 55 calories and its effect on the glycemic index is no better than that of sugar. While it’s argued that it does contain a good amount of antioxidants, you’d have to consume gallons of it to be able to reap any benefits. As a liquid substitute to sugar, maple syrup can act as a replacement in cooking and baking recipes, but not on a regular basis. Be warned that this slightly better version of refined sugar, when consumed in excess can cause swings in your blood sugar and insulin.
Coconut Palm Sugar
Derived from coconut palm trees, this coconut palm sugar has a lower glycemic index and is diabetes-friendly, which means no blood-sugar spikes. While its carbohydrate and calorie count are similar to that of table sugar, it is more nutritious. Research from the Philippines government's Food and Nutrition Research Institute stated that coconut sugar has higher levels of iron, zinc, and calcium in comparison to granulated sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. However, Sheth recommends limiting the consumption of coconut palm sugar to only two spoons a day.
Date Palm Jaggery
Bengalis better know it as nolen gur, and winter desserts made from date palm jaggery carry that faint beige-brown tinge. A powerhouse of nutrients, this sweetener helps improve digestion, treat cold and cough, aid in weight loss and can boost energy. From laddus to kheer and everything in between, nolen gur can be substituted for sugar in almost every Indian mithai.
The best way to go about substituting sugar with natural sweeteners would be to combine two or three natural sweeteners says Agarwal. She warns against the overuse of natural sweeteners even if they don’t have listed side effects as too much of anything can still, be harmful.