SINGAPORE - It was a mystery.
About a year ago, teacher Grace Heng couldn't understand why she was always hungry, even after having had a full meal.
Trying to look for the reason, the 26-year-old was horrified by what she found online - high levels of processed sugar in her diet.
"Never mind that it's in obvious choices like soda, pastries and cookies, it's even in the healthier options like low fat yoghurt, milk and pasta sauce," she tells The New Paper on Sunday.
"Since processed sugar is a no-nutrient, quick energy source and I am not a marathon runner, I decided that I didn't need it.
"I decided to limit my intake to help me get healthier and curb my tendencies to binge mindlessly."
But going off sugar was no walk in the park for Miss Heng.
"It wasn't until I tried to wean off processed sugar that I realised just what a drug it is," she says.
At first, she cut down on everything that obviously contains processed sugar.
"But then I caved in and wolfed down three chocolate fudge cupcakes at one go. And like every other girl on a diet, I beat myself up for not sticking to it," she recalls.
She realised that if she really wanted to drop processed sugar from her life, she needed to make a total lifestyle change.
Miss Heng turned to fruits and vegetables to satisfy her craving for sweetness and after some months, her body started to lose its taste for unnaturally sweetened foods.
"Now indulging in a few mouthfuls of chocolate fudge feels like an assault and my body naturally forces me to stop. Even drinking carbonated drinks is a painful experience," Miss Heng says, adding that she's happy with just plain water.
While she has no problems walking past confectionery shops, parties and other social functions are harder to negotiate.
She admits she has, on rare occasions, given in to her sweet tooth. But when that happens, she makes sure she limits the impact by "sharing a sweet treat with a friend".
Shopping for food has become an act of vigilance.
Her new lifestyle has taught her to read nutritional labels and that, in turn, opened the doors to all-round healthy eating.
"I learnt that a lot of packaged food contained some sort of additive or was just imbalanced in some way.
"They were either too high in salt, sugar or fat," she says.
Her diet mostly consists of vegetables, fruit and lean meats "to make up for all the things I can no longer eat".
She claims that since starting her diet of natural whole foods, she has stopped binge eating.
Her skin complexion has also improved.
"It's unbelievable how much we centre a celebration around sugar," she says.
"At first, I would just go with the flow and eat what everyone was eating, but then I realised that this was helping neither myself nor my loved ones."
Miss Heng has tried to advocate her processed sugar-free diet to friends and family.
To help with this, she documents her sugarless journey on a blog, vegsmoothiebunny.blogspot.sg.
Can we cut down on sugar? The World Health Organisation (WHO) urges that we need to. Its experts say sugar should take up only 5 per cent of a person’s daily caloric intake.
But even in its bid to reduce obesity, WHO nutrition director Dr Francesco Bana acknowledges that 10 per cent would be a more ‘realistic’ target for many of us.
Local dietitians and nutritionists echo the sentiments of the WHO.
Mr Derrick Ong of Eat Right Nutrition Consultancy says: "It's basically sugar, sugar, everywhere. There's sugar in everything. "It's unavoidable – it’s in cakes, drinks and sweets. There’s hidden sugar in even foods like mee siam, rojak, char siew and sauces.
"Singaporeans need to be aware of both obvious and hidden sugar sources, and limit their consumption accordingly."
Mr Ong admits that it will be hard to stick to the WHO's recommendations, because "non-carbonated sweetened drinks can take up an adult’s recommended sugar intake (6 teaspoons per day) just like that".
Another nutritionist, Miss Sheeba Majmudara, says: "Even though Singaporeans may try to cut down on sugar consciously, there are many hidden sugars and many Singaporeans are probably consuming more sugar than they should.
"There was even sugar in the garlic salt I bought the other day! We definitely need to cut down."
Agreeing, nutritionist Vanessa McNamara, founder of website The Travelling Dietitian, says: "Asian diets are now generally quite high in sugar. Singaporeans should focus on getting more natural sugar from fruit instead."
Sugar, the empty calories
There is no need for processed or added sugars in our diet, says Associate Professor Rob M. van Dam of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
He explains that cutting down on unnecessary sweets will substantially improve people’s health.
"Regular consumption of sugary beverages, even one serving a day, has been shown to lead to excess weight gain and has been linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes," he says. The World Health Organisation recently advised everyone to halve their daily sugar consumption to six teaspoons.
The move comes amid growing evidence that sugar contributes to a range of chronic diseases.
Prof van Dam says sugary drinks provide a lot of calories and people do not seem to fully compensate for these. Drinks do not make one feel 'full'.
On teacher Grace Heng's move to cut processed sugar from her diet, he says: "I believe it is fine to eradicate all sugar except for those naturally occurring in whole fruit and root vegetables."
"Healthier starchy foods such as whole grains and legumes are preferable to supply the sugar glucose while providing fibre and other healthy components.
"With the exception of whole fruit and some vegetables, sugar in foods is unhealthy because it adds a substantial amount of calories without providing nutritional value."
Glucose is needed as fuel in modest amounts, but this can also be supplied by healthier starchy foods and fruit. But Prof van Dam says it is prudent to regularly consume a variety of whole fruits.
"Although fruit naturally contains sugars, these are modest amounts. And fruits are rich in many other valuable components that can lower risk of cardiovascular diseases."
Endocrinologist Eric Khoo from the Endocrinology Division of NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine says that in terms of sugar consumption, a recent national survey showed that there was an increase in the proportion of adult Singapore residents consuming sweet desserts more than twice per week.
There were 27 per cent in 2010, compared to the 18.9 per cent in 2004.
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