Sugar cravings can be very powerful and you don’t need me to tell you that sugar isn’t great or that we are having too much of it. Most of us are aware it causes weight gain and diabetes if we eat too much. What is less obvious is that it also can suppress the immune system, inhibit absorption of essential minerals, destabilise our moods and lead to dementia, osteoporosis, skin aging and cancer.
The WHO has suggested we aim to reduce our free sugar intake to 6 tsp daily. This sugar isn’t just the kind you physically spoon into your tea or coffee. The high levels of sugar will be in many areas of your diet, even in savoury processed food but more obviously in shop-bought sweet goods along with honey, syrups and juices.
The Ayurvedic view of sugar and sweetness
Ayurveda’s view of sweetness, however, is different. The natural sweet taste is an essential and life promoting taste which we all need in our diets. The sweet taste is grounding, nourishing and calming; it gives us strength, vitality and contentment. It is the taste that, for good reason, represents the largest proportion of our meals. In excess, though, this taste can block the channels in the body and slow us down.
Sweetness does not equate to sugar; natural sweetness comes in much more subtle forms than the unusual intensity of sugar and other sweeteners. These ultra-sweet foods are rare in traditional diets and indeed in nature and are best, therefore, minimised on our plates.
The subtle sweet taste in foods comes from the carbohydrate, protein and fat in the food. Some natural foods we get the sweet taste from are:
- grains including wheat, rice, oats, corn. Anything made from these grains such as bread and pasta too.
- dairy products, especially milk
- meat (including chicken and fish)
- starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, squash
- sweeteners such as honey, syrups, molasses
Sugar Cravings Problem 1. Not enough natural sweet taste in the diet (e.g. a no carb diet).
Problem. If you follow a no carb or low carb diet, it may be that your body isn’t getting enough of the natural sweet tastes it needs.
Solution. Listen to your body, it may be sending you a message. It may be asking for sweetness and you may be interpreting this as asking for sugar. If you dig even deeper, it may even be asking for grounding. While looking at other ways you may need grounding in your life, make sure you are getting naturally sweet carbohydrates such as grains and root vegetables. Don’t feel you have to shun fruit either. Yes, it contains sugar, but it also contains water, fibre, vitamins and minerals, which make for a nutritious food which you can confidently include in your diet (best eaten by itself as it can cause digestive problems and āma if eaten with other foods).
Sugar Cravings Problem 2. Yoyo-ing blood sugar levels.
Problem . These rollercoaster blood sugar levels could be coming from caffeine, high GI food (including juices and smoothies), often eating carbohydrates without some form of protein or overuse of sugar.
- Reduce caffeine
- Replace sugar. If you feel a strong need for a really sweet taste, there are some other intense sweet tastes you can have in your diet. These still contain quite high levels of sugar but are buffered with fibre, minerals and other tastes such as slight astringency or bitterness which means your ‘stop’ response will kick in earlier.
- Try honey which is sweet but astringent and heating, which makes it great for vata and kapha and for scraping fat and mucous from the body. Honey is the only sweetener recommended for kapha constitutions or imbalances. Have raw honey (GI 35, versus processed which has GI 70), ideally finding a local supplier or try Littleover Apiaries from many supermarkets or online (http://www.littleoverapiaries.com/).
- Jaggery (GI 40) which is sweet and cooling, best for reducing vata.
- Maple syrup (GI 54) is also sweet and cooling, seen as best for reducing pitta.
- Eat more naturally sweet whole foods such as grains, root vegetables and fruit. Make sure your meals have some form of protein in them (doesn’t have to be in huge quantities). See this article on proteins and another on pulses.
- Add herbs and spices that help manage blood sugar levels. Cinnamon is a great one as it has a naturally sweet taste, reduces desire for sugar and also balances blood sugar levels.
- Follow your hunger into establishing regular meals each day. Don’t eat if you aren’t hungry but make sure you eat when you are – don’t stay hungry.
Sugar Cravings Problem 3. Missing vital tastes from a meal.
Problem. If you don’t have all 6 tastes represented in a meal, your body responds to this lack with cravings, mostly for the most satisfying taste – sweet.
Solution. Make sure each meal is full and rounded with all 6 tastes present (sweet, salt, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent). See this article on tastes for more information on this.
Sugar Cravings Problem 4. I’ve tried all of that but I just need a bit more help!
Problem. Sometimes the sugar cravings are very powerful and implementing the above advice can be hard.
Solution. There is a wonderful medicinal herb called gurmar (gymnema sylvestre). The name means “sweet destroyer”. It has been used for millennia in Ayurveda and has now also been the focus of a lot of research. There is a good body of evidence showing its ability to suppress the sweet taste. It works by reducing the reward sensation from sweet foods which then reduces consumption and also acts to reduce appetite in general. It is has also been proved to be beneficial in treating diabetes and obesity.
At The Ayurveda Practice, this is prescribed as a powder. This is taken with food in 3 small doses a day. As it brings down blood sugar levels, it can not be prescribed with patients suffering from hypoglycaemia or who are on diabetic medications (unless cleared with your doctor first).
Until next time, take care of yourselves.
Author: Kate Siraj, Ayurvedic Practitioner, BSc Ayurveda, MChem (Oxon), MAPA.
© The Ayurveda Practice