While most of us are hook, line, and sinker in love with sugar, it is very important to evaluate our equations with this delicious goodness. Who’s in control, who has all the power, and how toxic is this relationship?
I come from a family where every meal is ended with something sweet. I grew up on that — a little something after breakfast, Mishti Doi, or chutney, or both after lunch, cookies and cakes in the evenings, and sweets after dinner. My family has been proud of the fact that we have a sweet tooth. Given that we are Bengalis, we kind of write it off as something we have to be. Sweet lovers. Fish eaters. Argumentative as hell. As if these factors, so intrinsic to our identity, could not be manoeuvred, tweaked, or changed altogether.
Bengalis have different genres of sweets. Breakfast sweets like Jalebi, Omritti or Imarti, and crispy-fudgy Malpua. Rice kheer or Payesh, and Mishti Doi after lunches (often, dry sweets or Shondesh and Rasgullas also feature as after-lunch happy endings), and a wide range of sweetmeats for post-dinner revelry. Then there are sweets for special occasions (the Khaaja or Lobongolotika, for example, made only for Bhaiphota or Bhai Dooj), sweets made with specific seasonal ingredients (the Taal or Palm Fruit spread, or desserts like Pathishapta and Pithey made in the winter with Nolen Gur), and sweets that are snacks (the wide variety of Gojas or deep-fried dough squares coated in sugar syrup, and the Moa family or puffed rice balls made with jaggery, for example). To top all of this, different kinds of kheers and halwas are made — with rice, semolina, vermicelli, and also vegetables and fruits — for various occasions, and we have confectioneries and bakeries in every neighbourhood serving up all the pastries and cakes and muffins and custards one can think of. Flury’s, for any tourist in Kolkata, is a must-visit, and it isn’t a Bengali sweet shop, now is it? Here I must add that my personal favourite is Nahoum’s in the New Market, a Jewish bakery, established in 1902. Their Rum Balls are to die for.
So, if it’s got sugar in it, Bengalis know how to appreciate it.
But, although sugar is a part of the Bengali identity, it is important to understand that sugar is not good for the body. There really cannot be a discussion about this. For some reason — and I credit my mother’s discipline for this — I never took to junk as a kid. We didn’t have giant bottles of soft drinks stocked up in our refrigerator. No bags of chips and Doritos stuffed into the kitchen cabinets. I remember “two-squares only” being the clear rule while having chocolate bars and candy. Did I love the rules as a kid? Of course not. But they stayed with me, and for some reason, made me very conscious towards what I was eating all the time. Is it a nerdy quality in a child? Yes. Facepalm. Has it prevented me from spiralling out of control into obesity? Yes. My waist and heart thanks me. But although I might not be addicted to junk, I have a massive sweet tooth, and always crave for something sweet. I am the guy who orders two desserts because I am unsure which one I want more. I have hopelessly given in to decadent chocolate desserts and pastries, love cakes and éclairs, and anything with a cream cheese frosting, kheers, malpuas, and jalebis, and you-name-it-I-want-it. Staying away from sugar breaks my heart, makes me unhappy, and is not a good colour on me.
If you are connecting with all of this right now, it is also important for you to know that almost everything you consume has sugar in it. From cereal to juices to protein bars, everything is packed with sugar. We run after “low fat” all the time when we should actually be reading how much sugars and carbs every box we buy has. Fat is not bad for our bodies. We need fat. Sugar is a drug. I know this too well, because I make it a point to go zero sugar every two months for two months, and the first two weeks is withdrawal central. All I can think about is “something sweet”. Why would something cause this degree of dependency in someone? If I gave up on broccoli for two weeks, would I be twisting and turning for it, getting grilled broccoli dreams? No, I wouldn’t. The first time I went off sugar — cold turkey — inspired by one of my closest friends, I was shocked to see how all I, a full-blown adult man, could think about, is pastries and candy. I caught myself standing outside a confectionery, staring at it, daydreaming, for at least ten minutes, without having realised what I was doing. That was my wake up call. I am not overweight, I work out, I eat healthy, and I have never taken drugs. To get this rude shock that this is what sugar is doing to my body made me evaluate a lot of my choices.
Here’s the world’s shortest horror story: 500 ml of Coca-Cola contains more than 50 grams of sugar. That is more than 12 teaspoons.
I am still in a love-hate relationship with sugar. During my off-sugar months, I treat it as a time of self-discipline. The first two weeks truly are difficult every time, but then, I get used to it. I religiously read the nutritional value sheet on all food packaging now. No packaged drinks like juices and milkshakes. Always order one dessert, and two spoons. And, most importantly, I don’t stock anything sweet at home anymore. I have also noticed that during my on-sugar months, I don’t go overboard anymore. My portion sizes have reduced, and I am satisfied quicker — unless it is my mother’s Gaajar Ka Halwa or Burhanpur Mawa Jalebi or a moist, dense, decadent-and-dark chocolate cake. Then, to hell with portion control.
Go off sugar completely for two weeks. If you get withdrawals, you’ll know you are on a drug, and no drug — whether you snort it or turn it into cake — is good for you.