Understanding an Ayurvedic approach to sugar

Sugar, the nemesis of the modern lifestyle and according to science, public enemy no 1, far worse than glutens and fat. With sugar quitting advice appearing everywhere you look of late, I personally find it hard to sift out which bits of all the well-meaning but abundant information actually applies to me. I’m sure we all have friends who appear to be able to eat as many cakes and burgers as they chose and never gain an ounce of weight or a spot on their chin, some who consume the tiniest bit of sugar and zing around like veritable energiser bunnies and yet others who crash and burn into self-deprecating depressions after a high tea. Why is this? Well aside from the obvious yet annoyingly unsatisfactory point that we are all different, I wondered whether Ayurveda’s principles couldn’t shed a little more light on my personal sugar quitting journey and perhaps equip you with more satisfactory answers and alternatives that apply to your specific body/mind type. Maybe you don’t have to cut every natural sugar out? And if the logic (and my to-date experience) behind an Ayurvedically based diet is anything to go by – eating what’s right for you shouldn’t be unappealing to you at all.

Quick overview on understanding Ayurveda

According to Ayurveda, there are three primary mind/ body types or doshas –  Vata, Pitta and Kapha – with each one not only summarising your general predisposition to how you engage in the world, physically, mentally and emotionally, but also providing insight on the diet that is most suited to keeping you in balance. We’ve spoken about the three doshas a fair bit before, but it’s safe to say that taking a quizz and knowing and understanding your specific dosha can unlock a world of insight into your mental well-being and physical health. Broadly speaking, Vatas are your nimble, free spirited creatives, Pittas – your agile and ambitious leaders and Kaphas are the patient, grounded confidants.

I came across these artworks created by Danielle Bertoia that beautifully illustrate an overview on the three doshas.

Ayurvedic artworks - Danielle Bertoia

According to an article on Yoga Basics, “Ayurveda provides us with a bio-chemical, bio-energetic and bio-spiritual understanding of food.” Certain foods intensify one of the doshas while other foods pacify them. But what was their understanding of sugar? Each one has a different response to foods with some being already quite heated doshas and therefore a marginal amount of sugar is too much (Pitta) and others struggling with heavier dispositions and sensitive stomachs and again responding differently to differing sugars (most Kaphas). But you can also, of course, be bi- or tridoshic, meaning you are a combination of the three doshas to varying degrees.

The Ayurveda approach to sugar

Renowned recipe developer and famous sugar quitter, Sarah Wilson conducted an interview with Ayurvedic consultant Nadia Marshall, who had this to say on Ayurveda’s approach to refined white sugars:

“Refined sugars are considered both stale and over-stimulating. They are difficult to digest so can create disturbance and waste in the body (known as “Ama” in Ayurveda and considered to be the root cause of all disease). Refined sugars actually aggravate vata but also kapha, leading to fluid retention, weight gain, mental agitation or dullness (or both… swinging between the two) and physical exhaustion. They also weaken the pancreas and the liver, which in turn can aggravate pitta in the body”

Yet, it doesn’t surprise me that even sugar has its place in Ayurveda, where, like many eastern teachings, the notion is often to develop an understanding of your foods in order to cultivate balance.

With the ‘sweet sensation’ considered as one of the most important of the 6 essential tastes, a Sattvic diet encourages you to eat sweet food in large quantities, but of course, they mean natural sweeteners, as the sensation of sweet stimulates Vata, the primary of the three doshas controlling both the others.

‘Sweetness’ (when eaten in balanced amounts) is attributed to promoting:

  • happiness
  • contentment
  • calmness
  • cheerfulness
  • love
  • invigoration of the mind
  • alleviation of hunger and thirst

The sweet sensation foods welcomed by Ayurveda include:

  • milk (cow’s, ghee and goat’s)
  • rice
  • wheat and other grains
  • legumes
  • sweet fruits and dates
  • dates
  • honey or maple syrup
  • jaggery
  • natural sugars
  • sweet spices (basil, bay leaf, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, garlic, mint, nutmeg, poppy seeds, rosemary, saffron, tarragon, vanilla)

If you do wish to consume natural sugars in moderation, some sugar regulating foods include are:

  • cinnamon (regulates blood sugar levels)
  • ghee (slows down the metabolising of sugar)
  • spices (fibres that also slow the metabolism)

Yet because Ayurveda is a holistic approach to diet, and understand that sugar has its place, this doesn’t mean to eat lashings of it on everything. It always comes back to a mindful awareness and establishing a healthy balance. For even the ‘sweet sensation’ cultivated in excess can cause heaviness and congestion in the body (particularly for Kapha types).

Not all sugars are created equal

Because Ayurveda looks at everything in its singular context, even different types of natural sugars can stimulate differing effects on the various doshas. Some build heat and others cool. So, for example, if you are naturally Vata according to your dosha type, which is a cooler, air driven dosha, you will benefit from anything that builds heat, or in Ayurveda increases Pitta (which is fire infused dosha). Hence why it matters to know your specific natural sweetener friends and experiment with eating the one that suits your constitution best.

The difference between some natural sweeteners:

  • honey: sweet and astringent, heating, scrapes ‘fat’, slightly Increases Pitta. Decreases Vata & Kapha
  • maple syrup: sweet & bitter, cooling, can increase Kapha taken in excess, relieves Vata & Pitta
  • jaggery: sweet and cooling, heavy, strengthening, pacifies Vata, increasing Pitta and Kapha
  • raw cane sugar: sweet, cooling, increases fat, increases Kapha, relieves Vata & Pitta.

I wasn’t able to find much on other natural sweeteners like stevia, erythritol and agave in terms of their effects on doshas, but stevia does crop up often as an age-old companion to Ayurvedic medicine. I would consider it in the cooling list and use in moderation.

If you’re interested in a more scientific breakdown of the different sugars, this article from the Chopra centre explains quite nicely how the body processes each of the sugars and that in truth, while some might be marginally better than others, it really comes down to a strong awareness and moderation in how much we consume.

For an extended guide on how to eat for your dosha, check out our article on feeding your dosha.

Hopefully, this gives you a little more insight into the world of sugar versus sweet and how you can balance your approach to a sugar detox with a bit more sensitivity to your specific Ayurvedic constitution.




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