Sugar: according to everyone, it’s either the devil or completely fine in moderation. Figuring out how much to eat, what to eat, and what to avoid can be complicated. Additionally, when it comes to exercise, sweet treats require a balanced approach. Eating too little means you won’t have enough energy to work out, but eating too much leads to weight gain. Here’s some advice from two experts to help you decode the various kinds of sugar you need to eat to build muscle and stay healthy.
What are the different types of sugar?
Americans consume 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. This is more than twice the recommended amount. Sugars are also carbohydrates, both unrefined and processed. The former includes whole foods with unrefined sugar, such as fruits, juices, vegetables, grains, and certain legumes. These increase your blood sugar slowly, providing stable energy levels over time. The latter includes food such as soda, candy, crackers, cookies, and white bread. Foods with processed sweeteners cause a major jump in blood sugar followed by a crash.
How does sugar impact your body?
“Consuming sugar throughout the day depletes your energy and focus levels,” says Sara Monk, RD. “This is because all carbs are metabolized as sugar in your body. This means when you consume a carb it turns directly into sugar in your bloodstream. After consuming carbs, your blood sugar levels increase. Your pancreas then releases insulin, which is known as the fat-storing hormone. Insulin allows sugar to get into the cells and out of the blood stream, lowering your blood sugar levels. If you use that sugar for energy, you’ll burn it off. However, most of us consume way too much so it’s stored as fat.”
Monk says it’s typical to go through cycles of spikes and drops in blood sugar levels as carbs are consumed all day long. Regulating your sweet treat intake equips you to maintain energy levels, focus, have stable moods, reduce cravings, and maintain weight.
“Simple sugars such as honey and soda—are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream—increasing our blood sugar levels and providing our cells with a quick burst of energy,” explains Stephanie McKercher, Denver-based registered dietician. “Sugar fuels our brains and our muscles, but balance and moderation are key.”
Is it really bad for you?
Yes, and no. “Sugar is highly addictive, and regrettably prevalent in our food supply,” says Monk. “When referring to added sugar, it truly is best to cut it out of the diet. Evidence supports the theory that regular consumption of sugar leads to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of substance abuse! This means, chemical changes occur in your brain when you consume sweet things. That’s why it’s so addicting.”
Still, it’s unrealistic for most people to completely avoid sweets at all costs, nor do most dietitians recommended cutting out all added sugar. McKercher notes some attempts to eliminate it in full actually backfire, and lead to binging or overeating. It’s ideal to limit food and beverages with added sweetners, such as pop, candy, and flavored iced coffee—and focus on eating a healthy diet most of the time.
Monk advises: “If one day out of the month, you crave a soda, go for it. Be sure not to make a habit of it and consume a reasonable portion. If you’re able to have one cookie (not the whole box), then you don’t have to go crazy limiting yourself.”
What about so-called “healthy” sugars?
McKercher emphasizes that all types of sugar are fine in moderation, except in the case of allergy or personal choice. But, when comparing them, some clearly rank higher than others on the healthy scale. Stick to the natural stuff, such as blackstrap molasses, honey, maple syrup, and date sugar, rather than man-made sweet stuff such as corn syrup, brown sugar, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Honey, especially raw honey, is Monk’s favorite, followed by stevia. “Raw honey is not processed in high temperatures, meaning it contains beneficial enzymes, antioxidants, and other heat-sensitive nutrients that most commercial, cheap honeys don’t have,” she notes. “Stevia, which comes from an herb, is another great choice. First off, it’s safe for diabetics because it has a glycemic load of zero. This means it does not raise blood sugar levels at all. It also literally contains zero calories.”
In comparison, you often hear that agave is another “healthy” option. But, Monk warns against it. “Agave is not all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, in it’s natural form it contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. However, the agave sold in stores does not contain these beneficial elements. Agave also has a higher fructose content than high fructose corn syrup!”
As always, when considering sugars and sugar substitutes, do your research. Know that just because a product is marketed as healthy doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth.
How does sugar intake impact exercise?
In terms of working out, research suggests fructose (sugar from fruit) assists in strenuous activity. Your body typically burns through stored glycogen during a long and difficult workout. Eating or drinking something sweet can help keep your muscles working. Of course, people who work out regularly but in moderate fashion (i.e., less than two hours at a time) don’t really need to load up on sweet stuff.
Another study claims that activity as a whole reduces health risks associated with sugar, and small bouts of exercise can still positively impact how your body responds to it. Maybe you don’t eat a sweetened energy bar before a fast-paced walk, but the walk itself helps your body metabolize added sweetners in the first place.
All in all, unrefined sugar is a positive addition to your diet for exercise purposes, because it functions as fuel for weight training and cardio, and after a workout. This type of sugar in combination with protein helps you build muscle and increase recovery speed.
What do more people need to understand about sugar?
“Sugar is not just found in your caramel iced coffee or in your coca-cola,” says Monk. “It’s in a great chunk of the processed foods found in the shelves of grocery stores. You can find it caught hiding out in drinks and processed foods by a variety of names. These include high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, and many many more! It has so many different names.”
She suggests a trick for steering clear of added sweetners: watch for words ending in “ose,” like maltose and dextrose, as ingredients with this ending are a type of non-natural sugar.
And if you happen to consume a lot of sweet stuff, start slow by eliminating processed food and drink. Eat whole foods for energy, and increase consumption of protein, healthy fats and fiber to combat sweet cravings and promote the sense of feeling satisfied. Finally, live by the moderation rule.
“I eat a few bites of something sweet almost every night,” says McKercher. “I feel good about it because I’m also eating lots of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and other satiating foods throughout the day. Food—especially sugar—is meant to be enjoyed!”