Type “how to quit” into Google, and you’ll get some expected auto-fills: “smoking,” “vaping,” even “your job.” These quittable activities have been around for a while, but Google reveals another, newer search that’s gaining in popularity: “how to quit sugar.” Since sugar (and sitting) became the smoking—i.e., the root cause of all our problems from weight gain to diabetes, depression to anxiety, this history of slavery and ongoing cultural racism to climate change—the masses are looking for ways to eliminate this culinary temptress that seems to have been leading us astray since we roamed Eden.
While the science and anecdotal evidence behind reducing or eliminating white, processed sugar from our diet is strong, sugar does not deserve the public enemy number one status that it’s obtained. Our narrow definition of sugar as the granules we sift into cookie dough or pour into coffee limits our understanding of the vast world of nourishment, comfort, and energy that sugar provides the human body, mind, and heart. In Ayurveda, the concept of sugar falls into a much bigger category of the sweet taste, madhura rasa, which is just one of six tastes available in our food as well as our experiences. Eliminating any of the tastes from our diet will inevitably cause imbalance, but this is especially the case when it comes to sweets.
If you’ve been dedicated to a no-sugar lifestyle and stressing about the holiday season ahead, where sweets abound in baked goods, candy confections, spiced drinks, and more, keep reading for all the reasons you might want to rethink your relationship with this vital nutrient.
The Nature of Sweet
In Ayurveda, all things in nature contain various degrees of the five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. This includes our food, and the elemental composition of foods will determine not only the type of food (leafy greens have more air, for instance than a potato, which has more earth) but also the taste. Similar to the doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—each of the six tastes comprises two elements that define its properties and effects on the body when we eat them. As such, each taste will have a corresponding effect on the doshas based on the elements.
The sweet taste, called madhura rasa, is made of earth and water elements. This gives sweet foods a grounding, nourishing, and building quality known as brhmana, which we can see in action in babies and little children, pregnant women, and even people who are recovering from illness or injury and regaining strength. Sweet foods are essential to those growth stages of life, but they’re also essential to all people, all the time. Because our bodies are always in a cycle of breaking down and building up, we need sweet as a fundamental building block in order to stay alive and replenish the energy we use up during the day just existing, let alone living our full and busy modern lives.
Western science talks about this need for sweet in terms of glucose, which our dense, heavy, super-active brains—responsible for thinking but also running the whole operation of your body, 24/7—eat up like kids on Halloween. Ayurveda has a similar view of the role of glucose, but more from a doshic standpoint. The mobile, transformative activities of the mind and body are primarily the role of vata and pitta doshas. Kapha dosha is their counter, which like the sweet taste is also made up of earth and water elements. You can imagine kapha as the insulation around your nerves, or the synovial fluid between your joints that allow for smooth, friction-free movement as you go about your business.
When we think of “brain food” in this way, we might imagine the buzz we get when we eat a piece of candy. This more concentrated hit of sugar will definitely affect your brain, but it’s not the only way—or the preferred way—of engaging with sugar as fuel. Like other supplements that isolate active ingredients for a seemingly more intense effect, sugar on its own is devoid of context; in the case of food, that means the other minerals, nutrients, and chemicals—the other elements—that allow that sugar to be recognized and digested by the body.
Indeed, all things, including foods, have all five elements, so even sweet-tasting foods have a bit of the other qualities to round them out and provide balanced nutrition. As such, turning to whole-food versions of sweetness—fruit, root vegetables, whole grains, even more traditional sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses—will have a more stable effect on the metabolism.
In the end, though, it’s impossible to escape the sweet taste entirely because all foods, by virtue of being solid, living things, contain the water and earth elements. Eating in and of itself is an act of brhmana, which is why food of any flavor is such a source of pleasure and connection for many of us.
Everything in Moderation
Considering the need for sweet tastes to run our bodies and brains, and the inherent sweetness of all foods, it’s easy to see how we might have become too gung-ho about sweeteners in general. But per Ayurveda’s “middle path” way of life, sweet has a proper time and place in everyone’s diet.
As sweet corresponds to kapha dosha, it comes up much more often in our summer, fall, and winter menus. Both pitta (summer) and fall and winter (vata) seasons have a tendency toward dryness and lightness, which are balanced by the more gross and heavy qualities of kapha and sweet. This is why foods like fruits in summer, and squashes, root vegetables, and fats are all more tempting these times of year—which is, I’ll note, most of the year! Individuals working with vata or pitta imbalances are also encouraged to incorporate whole-food sweetness.
The holiday season can be a time where excess sweet is all around, and in the Ayurvedic cycle that is completely natural to lean into! Choosing more whole-food sweet foods will prevent energy spikes and falls, brain fog, bloating, and other consequences of too much-processed sugar, all of which are simply symptoms of indigestion—your body not recognizing the pure sugar and hence not breaking it down efficiently. Healthy sweets can furthermore support the creation of ojas, the immune elixir that we keep on reserve and prevents us from getting sick or run down—but only if we have good digestion.
What can also help to keep sugar binges in check is balancing the sweet taste with its five companions. Ayurveda recommends that every meal include all six tastes in different proportions depending on the individual, time of day, or season. So while you might be loving a creamy, comforting bowl of pumpkin curry on a fall day, there are hints of the other elements that all help make the sweet more digestible—a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt, a handful of cilantro, a dash of turmeric, ginger, and pepper.
Harmonizing the flavors of your meals can also bring out the sweet taste more potently, so you understand when you’ve had enough. Many of my clients who have had strong relationships with processed sugar find that natural sugars totally rebalance their understanding of “sweet,” such that the processed stuff doesn’t quite have the same appeal anymore; it’s too strong, or too cloying, like a crying, clinging child who can’t seem to settle.
A Spoonful Helps the Medicine Go Down
If sweet becomes more obvious in combination with other tastes, the reverse is also true: Sweet can act as a carrier for more bitter and astringent substances we often use in herbal medicine. Known as anupanas, foods like honey, molasses, ghee, and milk—all of which are sweet—have an affinity for certain deep tissues of the body like the bones, nerve tissue, and reproductive tissue. If we want to target those areas with a single herb or herbal formula, combining it with sweet will not only make it taste better but make the medicine work better!
A common example of this is the herb ashwagandha, which has become more and more popular in modern culture as an adaptogen, and support for focus and sleep alike. On its own, this root is bitter, heavy, dense, hot, and oily, which for some people make it hard to digest. (It’s technically also nightshade!) However, when mixed into a cup of warm milk with a pinch of cinnamon or cardamom and ¼ to ½ teaspoon of ghee or coconut oil, the qualities of the herb transform, and the whole combination is received by the body with more love and acceptance.
That’s what the sweet taste does, whether in aiding medicine’s absorption or as a primary part of our diet. It initiates the digestive process through whetting the appetite, creating salivation in the mouth with which we can taste our food, and mucus throughout the GI tract to help it go down easy. Without sweet to make us desire a connection to food, any food, we’d be unable to receive its medicine. Turns out Mary Poppins had it right all along. . .!
The Sweet Life
Of course, any discussion of an Ayurvedic diet doesn’t stop at the food we eat. There’s also the food we ingest and digest through our senses. The stimuli in our environment all have their own qualities, elements, doshas, and tastes, just like food. Gazing out over a beautiful, colorful garden in spring might “taste” sweet, whereas listening to your boss’s tirade might “taste” pungent, or spicy. Indeed, in the same way, that the tastes have physical effects on the body, the tastes—in food, environment, and activities—have an emotional and psychological effect too that affect one’s digestion and subsequent feeling of nourishment.
We often crave sweetness, or associate sweet foods, with connection, nostalgia, and love. The smell of grandma’s kitchen as she baked your favorite dessert or the way a pint of ice cream makes the bite of a hard day at work all better. Turning to sweet foods for that comfort is valid, but we can also consume other sweet things and feel the same effects. In that regard, filling your life with sweetness in the form of meaningful and authentic relationships, clear communication, time in nature, creative practices, and self-love will all infuse your “diet” with sweetness without you having to touch a gram of sugar. And just like with food, the more sweet things we have at the ready to make the tough medicine of life’s challenges can allow us to move through change and transition with more steadiness and resilience.
This is another reason why sweet is so useful for fall and winter, the season where change can feel most intense. You may choose to fill your kitchen with treats and pumpkin-spice everything, but you might also intentionally interact out to the people, animals, and places that make you feel at home and welcomed. Where there’s earth under your feet and water to keep you juicy; where you’re constantly nourished by the simple sweetness of being alive.
To learn more about the role of the sweet taste in fall self-care practices, join me on November 1 for a workshop all about cultivating gratitude and abundance!