Sugar is obviously evil, right? With all of the media focus on the dangers of sugar and other anti-sugar propaganda out there, one has to assume that it's true: sugar is the devil. Social media is in general an awesome new tool for the transmission of information, but the ability to mass distribute opinions, anecdotes and snippets of unfounded information -and misinformation- can also be a problem. Information can be spread rapidly and consumed en masse and is often oversimplified – failing to expand on exceptions to blanket statements. In nutrition particularly, there are almost always exceptions to any rule or at least conditions under which the rules are different. These distinctions can be important, and even when a viral post has a seed of truth, sometimes part of the truth is more detrimental than ignorance.
While it is certainly true that average, sedentary people should avoid excess sugar in their diets, there is a ton of misinformation out there about the role sugar can play in athletics and improving body composition - yep you read that right - IMPROVE body composition; meaning sugar can play a role in decreasing body fat under some conditions. It's important to know when sugar is bad and when it can be beneficial. This article can hopefully clear up the misinformation out there and give you the very good, the bad, and the downright ugly of sugar consumption.
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Sugar can be good? Obviously I’m a corporate shill getting paid by the big corporations! Not so fast. It’s important to make the distinction between sports nutrition and general health nutrition for the average person (read largely sedentary). In the role of sports nutrition and improving performance/body composition sugar can have numerous advantages. It is important to note that sugar consumption itself plays a small role in the overall diet priorities for altering body composition and/or improving sports performance. Just because we are telling you that sugar consumption can optimize these things does not mean that popping starburst all day will make you a fitness model next week – there are a few much higher priority aspects of nutrition to tend to before you start playing with the details that have a small effect, but can optimize your results. Please see the attached figure for a better understanding of the nutritional priorities.
Controlling for calories when trying to lose fat is the biggest factor in losing weight – so you should not be adding sugar to your diet to put yourself in a caloric surplus if fat loss is your goal. Further, all of your calories cannot come from sugar or you will lose muscle mass. That being said, as the chart shows, if you can determine the right calorie balance to maintain weight can determine the caloric deficit or surplus you will need to lose or gain weight and understanding these things are top priority for altering body composition and size.
Two important popular news stories illustrate how critical calorie balance is, check out the McDonald’s diet by a high school teacher or the “Twinkie Diet” by a college Professor of Nutrition. Obviously these are not the healthiest options, but the point is made – eat less calories than you burn and weight loss WILL happen. These examples demonstrate that controlling for your calorie intake is the most important factor even if food choices were those usually associated with gaining weight. Part of the reason that sugar is seen as evil is that people tend to add it into their already full diet in the form of additional calories, and thus, they end up gaining weight and sugar takes the blame when calorie surplus is what is primarily at fault. It is a little more complicated than this, and sugar in excess, consumed by inactive people has other detrimental effects to health. We are just trying to illustrate the factors involved in weight change. When done correctly you can achieve both body composition change and health with sugar in your active life.
Long ago, sports nutritionists (and endurance athletes especially) noticed that if they consumed sugary beverages or foods around their training, it improved. This was some of the beginning findings of nutrient timing and how higher GI (glycemic index – a measure of how fast carbohydrates are digested and make it to your bloodstream) carbohydrates could actually improve performance. This is especially true for longer lasting workouts (think multiple hours) as the need to increase/replete glycogen stores as fast as possible is more important.
How does sugar help replete glycogen stores quicker? The answer lies in its ability to raise your blood glucose levels quicker than their lower GI counterpart (think oatmeal, sweet potatoes, rice, and so on). Simple sugar can enter the bloodstream very quickly since it does not have a complicated chemical breakdown. In certain instances, this is beneficial to athletes. The need to replenish glycogen stores is not only important for longer, harder workouts, but also for athletes working out multiple times per day. Imagine training really hard in the AM and not fueling yourself properly and trying to get the most out of your 2nd workout of the day. Of course it won’t go as well if you don’t fuel yourself properly. Timing higher GI carbs around training can help alleviate that concern by putting glycogen back into your muscles efficiently so that they are ready to work hard again.
Another important distinction to make about sugar is that all carbohydrates are broken down into simple carbohydrates. A complex carbohydrate (your lower GI varieties) all end up being broken down into your simple carbohydrate/sugar. So your whole grain bread eventually gets broken down into the subunits that make up the “evil” sugars – and necessarily so – that’s the only way it can get into your muscles to provide energy for movement. I think this gets lost on a lot of people as sugar is vilified and complex carbs are seen as fine by most compared to sugar. When you take a closer look into the chemical breakdown, you end up seeing it all ends up the same in the end…or is it? That leads us into the bad part of sugar.
So now that we know that sugar can be good, we should eat it whenever we want, right? Well, luckily when referring back to the nutritional priorities chart we can see that nutrient timing and food quality do play a role. Some diet plans whose acronyms will go unnamed here, would have you believe you can get lean eating pop tarts, sugary cereal, and so on all day long without regard to timing around workouts. While that has some truth to it -as seen by the articles linked above , calorie balance is king- it still misses the mark on optimal body composition changes and performance aspects a bit. An overconsumption of sugar throughout the day has been shown to lead to lowered insulin sensitivity and can lead to fat gain. If calories are not controlled for, it can also lead to weight gain – sugar calories can be over-consumed very rapidly (and common sugar sources are typically calorically dense foods like junk food).
Another downside of consuming sugar can be its addictive properties. Tasty foods can tend to have you craving tastier foods – though research is still underway, there is some evidence that addiction pathways in the brain are involved in overeating particularly for sugary foods. This isn’t an issue for say somebody looking to maintain or gain weight, but it can become a bigger problem for somebody looking to lose weight. Imagine having a set number of carbohydrates to consume, but you opt for a sugary treat during the day. Not only does it taste amazing, but it can lead to more subsequent cravings especially when in contrast to bland diet foods, and it also tends to less be satiating since your blood sugar levels are raised quickly and then drop back down. This likely means you’ll be hungry not long after consuming your sugary treat and when trying to maintain a caloric deficit, more hunger makes your diet even tougher!
For some athletes who don’t train for extended periods, the role of higher GI carbs is also less clear. This means the need for them around training is less likely. When you’re training for an hour or under each day, having the higher GI carbs can lead to all of the above mentioned downsides associated with sugar meaning more cravings, feeling less full, and possibly overeating from wanting more sugary foods.
We now know some of the good and not so good regarding sugar. Here’s where a lot of the health pundits have it right in regards to sugar being “ugly” (this is that seed of truth and above are the conditions for exceptions to the rule). For most people (the sedentary ones) sugar is just about completely useless in their day-to-day lives. We know sugar can help performance and body composition goals when consumed around training…what happens when you have sugar but don’t train at all? First, the truth is, in this case you really don’t ever need it! Now that’s not to say that sedentary people should never eat anything sugary again, but treats in moderation is a lot different than drinking a couple of cans of soda per day.
When you don’t workout and you consume sugary foods/beverages routinely, that’s a good recipe to possibly develop diabetes and a whole host of other health issues. For most people that are just interested in overall health, a more traditional approach with lean proteins, healthy fats, lots of fruits/veggies, and lower GI (healthier carbs) is a fantastic approach to take.
As we mentioned in the bad category, sugar is incredibly easy to overeat as it’s found in lots of junk foods, fast foods, and so on that pack a ton of calories in a small amount of total food volume. This is why most normal people can easily get 500-1000 calories from junk food without even noticing or feeling like they have overeaten. They continue to eat normally in addition to this unnoticed splurge and that results in being in a caloric surplus, thus causing weight gain in addition to the sugar problems if they aren’t training. I’ve heard tons of stories from less active friends and family about how they kicked their soda consumption and all of a sudden dropped 5-10 lbs within a few weeks. It’s easy to see why, a couple of cans per day (at let’s say 40g carbs per can is 160 calories per can). Two cans per day x 7 days/week has you consuming over 2200 calories just from pure sugar. That’s adding in about .75 lbs/week on average just from two cans of soda per day. This however is not evidence that sugar is responsible for weight gain in and of itself – it's just an easy vehicle for the extra calories to generate a surplus.
Hopefully now you’re armed with a better idea of how sugar can be both good and bad and can view it as an “it depends on the situation” instead of labeling this particular food as good or bad!