Few topics boggle the minds of dieters and fitness enthusiasts the way sugar does. Is this simple carbohydrate the key to unlocking elite sports performance? Or is it the chains that drag our country deeper and deeper into the obesity epidemic? Annoyingly, the answer is “both.” But before you throw your hands up in frustration and grab yourself a Twinkie®, let’s take a minute to talk about sugar. It’s not as complex as it seems. In fact, with just a few guidelines, it’s incredibly easy to use these simple carbohydrates for good instead of evil.
Rule #1: Just say “know.”
Here’s a grossly over-simplified look at how sugar, also known as simple carbohydrates, works. Just as with all carbs, you eat sugar and it’s absorbed by your blood, where, if you have the right amount of insulin in your system, that insulin converts the sugar to energy. However, if you introduce too much sugar into your system, the insulin stores it as body fat. A little stored body fat is fine; the body likes some emergency fuel. However, if your blood sugar spikes too often and the insulin has to work too hard converting fat, this can lead to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes and heart problems.
As we’ll discuss later, when your body obtains sugar from natural sources, like fruits and veggies, the process tends to be checked by fiber, which slows absorption. However, when you eat foods with added sugar, this can overwhelm the usual checks and balances, causing problems like those nasty blood sugar spikes. To make matters worse, consuming too much added sugar can cause a host of other problems, including tooth decay, increased triglycerides (or stored fat), and malnutrition (from overconsumption of foods filled with empty calories and deficient in nutrients).
If you wanted one overarching rule to work from, you might choose to avoid added sugars entirely. You’ll get all the energy you need from foods with naturally occurring sugar. That said, there are times when refined sugar is OK or even beneficial. If you’re able to build yourself a lifestyle completely free of added sugar, nice work. But for the rest of us, the trick is moderation.
Rule #2: Less is more.
One teaspoon of table sugar has 15 calories. Honestly, if you have a couple of cups of tea or coffee in the morning and you dump the proverbial spoonful of sugar in each, that’s 30 calories. If the rest of your diet is tight and you’re active, it won’t matter. If you’re trying to lose weight and are eating at a severe deficit, you’ll probably want to skip those few spoonfuls of sugar, because table sugar is nutritionally void and you want every calorie to count nutritionally. Other than that, though, life’s short—enjoy your java.
Rule #3: Sugar is sugar is sugar . . .
Agave nectar, honey, beet sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), whatever. At the end of the day, they’re all simple carbs, unregulated by fiber with minimal micronutrient value. Sure, you might prefer one over the other. I like honey because I’m a bit of a whole foods person and it does have a tiny bit of nutritional value, but I still know that if I eat too much, it’ll make me fat.
Rule #4: . . . and it’s hiding behind every corner.
And you thought Invasion of the Body Snatchers was creepy . . . Avoiding the obvious sweetened foods, like soda, cake, cookies and pies, is only half the battle. Manufacturers add HFCS (as well as other sugars) to a mind-boggling amount of foods because it adds flavor. If it’s in a bottle, box, or can, read the ingredients. You’ll find sweeteners in everything from ketchup to peanut butter to bread to salad dressing. With a little effort, you can usually find versions of the same food with no added sugars or HFCS that are more nutritious and taste just as good.
Rule #5: No, the sugar in fruit isn’t bad for you.
When the low-carb “revolution” hit in the early aughts, fruit was demonized for its sugar content. This is, in a word, ridiculous. Yes, fruit is loaded with sugar, but it’s also usually loaded with fiber, which slows sugar absorption, making it an ideal way to get your simple carbs without straining your little insulin buddies. Fruit is also loaded with easy-to-absorb vitamins and minerals. Most fruit is also filled with water, yet another benefit.
Even relatively low-fiber fruits like bananas offer far too many benefits to be denied. Bananas, in particular, are rich in electrolytes, which are crucial to sports performance. As I always say, I defy you to introduce me to an overweight person whose biggest indulgence is fruit.
You can think of the ingredients in Shakeology® the same way. Sure, there’s a little sugar in there, but the protein and fiber slow absorption and the massive amount of nutrients makes it all worthwhile.
Rule #6: Occasionally, a hit of straight sugar is a good thing.
You’re sitting around watching television. You haven’t done much today. Your glycogen stores are up, and because you’ve eaten normally, your blood sugar level is balanced. Time for some P90X Results and Recovery Formula®? Probably not.
Conversely, you just blasted a killer workout. You’ve blown through your blood sugar and your glycogen, leaving you shaky and tired. Getting some sugar in there now to help you recharge fast wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Furthermore, since it’ll rush in so fast, it’s a great opportunity to add some protein and micronutrients to that sugar blast, because they’ll rush into where they’re needed just as quickly.
If you genuinely gave the workout your all and you’re truly wiped out, you won’t even come close to storing that sugar as fat.
So there you go. Not so tough, huh? With a little forethought and self-control, keeping an eye on your carbs can be, ahem, a piece of cake.