Working as a boutique hotel and food and drink consultant means constantly trying new food, eating out to support other restaurants and dining experiences, and trials and tastings. A couple of years ago, this became an occupational hazard that took its toll on me. What I thought was a stomach of steel, started giving me trouble. There was an uneasiness after meals, and I realised that something was not suiting my gut. It was making me irritable, moody, and anxious—I didn't realise until much later when I connected the dots that there was a link between my gut and mental health.
The elimination method
I took a year to sift through what I was eating via the elimination diet method, taking off one item at a time from my everyday diet, to see what wasn't working for me. The first to go was gluten. Gluten-free diets were gaining popularity and friends were beginning dinner conversations with the benefits of this diet. However, giving up gluten didn't work for me, all it did was make me feel listless and faint.
The second to go was dairy. I didn't see any changes except that not having my chai (my vice) was making me even more irritable. The third elimination was cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. This was the first time I saw positive changes. The uneasiness, bloating, gut issues, all began to subside. During this time, I was also introduced to the benefits of giving up all things white from my diet (white rice, refined sugar, maida). It seemed interesting and I gave it a shot.
Sugar be gone
One of the things that struck me was my dependence on sweets. I've been a dessert junkie all my life, my Bohra heritage is to blame. As a culture, our meals are interspersed with desserts. Giving up refined sugar meant letting go of a very large component of my diet, so I decided to take it up as a one-month challenge. The adrenaline pump keeps you going through the first couple of weeks. Also, since I had practised the elimination diet, it was not so difficult.
During the third week of giving up refined sugar, the changes surfaced. I was irritable, short-tempered, angry, and moody. Brain fog and exhaustion set in. Sugar is addictive like drugs so the body will go through withdrawal. I don't have a definite answer to what made me stick it out, but the fact that I had already come this far, kept me going. Within 10 days, the negative side effects wore off and I was calmer, more productive and focussed. I decided to extend it for one more month and it has been more than 12 months since.
The upside of no sugar
I did consider giving up sugar as part of my elimination diet primarily to see if it made a difference to my gut health but was also enticed by the weight loss. I didn't lose any weight. But I became mindful about what I was eating, which in turn reduced hair fall, had my skin feeling fresh with fewer breakouts. I had no PMS or menstrual cramps and overall there was a spring in my step.
Mental wellbeing isn’t one of the areas where I was expecting the benefits to show, but that's where I saw the best results. My anxiety and stress levels reduced considerably. The mood swings were gone. I became more patient. All this certainly felt worth giving up refined sugar for.
Take it slow
Having said this, it is important to understand that I was not depriving my body of nutrition. Sugar may be a primary source of glucose and therefore energy for our bodies, but glucose has many other sources and forms. Carbohydrates such as bread, rice, potatoes are converted by our body into glucose. Even fats like butter, avocado, olive oil that may not directly convert into glucose, accelerate the consumption of carbohydrates to turn them into glucose.
There are natural substitutes such as jaggery, honey and dates that add enough glucose to keep our body's nutritional value balanced. The initial withdrawal that we feel is because of the addictive quality and the consumption pattern formed by eating refined sugar. I used jaggery powder as a substitute in my daily cup of chai. Sometimes, if I really want something that requires sugar to bring out the flavour, then I opted for coconut and raw cane sugar. I even carry my jaggery powder everywhere I travel as a substitute.
Over the past couple of years, umpteen brands have popped up in the healthy dessert segment. You can easily find desserts and chocolates without refined sugar. Most boutique hotels are mindful and always have desserts that use healthy and natural sugar substitutes. Erythritol and Stevia have been gaining popularity as other natural substitutes however they have a peculiar aftertaste, which I am not fond of.
Listen to your body
Before taking up such diet changes, you must understand your body. I recommend an annual full body checkup to make sure your blood sugar and vitamin levels are in check. Most importantly, knowing the reason why you're giving up something is paramount. The elimination diet helps if you're suffering from an ailment. However, an easier way to do so is to get an allergy test, consult a nutritionist and then take the necessary steps. Also, it's always good to reduce something from your diet instead of eliminating it. If you remove it 100 per cent you can shock your body by ingesting it at a later stage.
When I decided to give up refined sugar indefinitely, I consulted friends who had quit for years together. I read up a lot on sugar and its effects on our mind and body, the repercussions of giving it up, the everyday items that have hidden sugars and substituting it in your diet.
At the same time, I believe, occasional indulgence is perfectly fine. Treating yourself to something that you love is gratifying especially when you’re working hard on your diet. For example, I love jalebis and still can’t say no to them, but it must be the best jalebi. Giving up something fully puts too much pressure, and we don't need to add more pressure to our lives.
I also took up a Sugar-Free September challenge with habit coach Ashdin Doctor where I gave up all forms of sugar and its substitutes. The reason I took up the challenge was to give up my addiction to chai. Letting go of something or doing one thing consistently every day helps in disciplined thinking. I was feeling a lack of discipline in life with the lockdown. Like most other people, all my plans had been derailed and adapting to a post-Covid world was becoming crucial. The challenge taught me that I was free of any addictions. I could survive!
Insia Lacewalla is a boutique hotel and F&B consultant as well as the founder of India With Insia, a company that provides curated travel experiences across India to the discerning Indian millennial.