Sugar gets a bad name in the world of fitness. One argument says that sugar is worse for you than many hardcore drugs due to its addictive effects on the brain, and that it will have all sorts of negative impacts on your health. On the other hand, flexible dieters all over social media seemingly exist on Pop-Tarts and donuts, and manage to stay in very good shape.
So who’s right? The answer, as we’ll explore, is probably somewhere in the middle.
What Is Sugar?
Let’s first look at what exactly sugar is. Sugar is a short-chain carbohydrate, which means it digests and absorbs very quickly in the body. All carbohydrates are eventually broken down into smaller components and absorbed during the digestion process, but simple carbohydrates, such as those found in processed, sugar-dense food tend to absorb much quicker than complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs like rice, candy, cereal, fruit juice, and complex being food sources as oatmeal, potatoes, and whole-grain pasta and bread.
It’s also important to note that while many fruits are naturally high in sugar, they often have a bit of fiber as well, and a host of other nutrients that are very good for the body, so while fruits are a natural source of sugar, they shouldn’t be classified with processed foods like candy and soda.
Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar
When any carbohydrates are consumed, they will eventually raise your blood sugar levels. This causes a brief energy spike, and makes your body release insulin to control and stabilize these levels. This is why you may feel a rush of energy after consuming sugary foods, or why children seem to become very hyper after eating candy. It hits you much faster than it would if you were to eat a complex carbohydrate as part of a balanced meal.
However, the faster the rise, the harder the crash – you will eventually come down from your sugar high, which can cause fatigue, hunger, irritability, and other negative things. If you eat a very carbohydrate-dense breakfast, including foods such as cereal, bagels, orange juice, fruit, etc… you may notice you crash and get tired a few hours later; I’m sure most of us have felt that. This is why it’s generally a better idea to eat complex carbohydrates, to stabilize your blood sugar and energy levels and control hunger. It is also important to note that chronically high blood sugar levels can contribute to insulin resistance over time, which may cause you to gain weight and increase your risk of developing adult-onset diabetes.
Sugar addiction is also a very real thing that needs to be addressed. When you consume sugar, the area of the brain associated with reward and pleasure lights up – this is why some have compared sugar to cocaine; your body begins to crave that happy feeling. If you regularly eat refined carbohydrates, or drink soft drinks or juices rich in sugar, you may find it very hard to remove these foods. You may feel physical symptoms of withdrawal if you’ve been consuming sugar for a long period of time, similar to going through a caffeine or nicotine withdrawal, making it very challenging to remove these from your diet.
But Is Sugar Always Bad For You..?
The point of this article is not to scare you away from eating sugar in moderation. Now that we’ve looked at the possible negative side effects, let’s look at the times it can actually be beneficial, and see how this really applies to real-world nutrition. After all, it would be very difficult, as well as quite boring, to completely avoid sugar for the rest of your life.
In terms of a pure body composition effect, sugar in and of itself does not have a negative effect. We already mentioned how it can cause hunger and fatigue, which may lead to overeating, but when accounted for in your daily calorie goals, it doesn’t have a negative impact. Several studies have looked at two groups with the same macro breakdown in their diet, with one group using more processed, sugary foods for the carbohydrate sources, versus the other group which used complex, “healthy” carbs, and the resulting fat loss was the same. So, for the flexible dieters out there, while it may not be optimal for your health, you can include sugar and still see results.
Sugar and Exercise
Lastly, sugar can also be beneficial when ingested around your workout time. You don’t need to eat a bag of Skittles before you lift, but having some simple carbohydrate source before and after your workouts, whether it be fruit, rice, a workout beverage, or something else can have definite performance benefits.
Your body uses a lot of glycogen when resistance training, and to maximize recovery you want to ingest carbohydrates and protein around the workout. The faster you can get those foods digested and into the blood, the faster the nutrients can be delivered to your muscles and start the recovery process. In fact, many of the carbohydrate powders, or recovery shakes on the market have very fast digesting forms of sugar included, with the sole purpose of getting the carbs to your muscles as fast as possible.
To summarize, while sugar doesn’t have a direct impact on body composition, it can have many negative side effects when consumed in excess. It can however give you a performance and recovery benefit when consumed around your workout. Your best bet is to use moderation, and only consume small, controlled amounts of sugar-rich foods, preferably around your workout time. Will it kill you to have cereal and juice for breakfast? No, but there are much better options out there if you want to optimize your health and performance. Keep the simple carbs around your workout, and you’ll feel and perform much better in the long run.