Sugar, You Sweet, Sweet Villain
Sometimes, my wife and I deny science.
As much as we eat a diet primarily composed of whole, natural foods — and generally limit our carbs — sugar is harder to kick.
I eat significantly less sugar than I used to, but I still give into cravings.
I drink green tea to counteract the effects on my insulin sensitivity1, but I can be more disciplined. And I should–there are a number of dangerous side-effects sugar has which can counteract the gains you’re making in your bodyweight training program.
Let’s review the science in case you aren’t aware that sugar is addictive, and we’ll also go over its effects on your health and your strength training.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with sugar addiction evidence. I’ll provide this background material. If you’re already familiar, please scroll down.
Is Sugar Really Addictive?
As a health conscious consumer, I’m sure you’ve heard the assertion that “sugar is as addictive as cocaine.” (if not, guess what?)
Sugar activates many of the same receptors in the brain as cocaine. Your body releases dopamine in the brain when you eat sugar.2
Does that scare you? It should.
To understand that claim, it’s helpful to understand the history of dietary sugar.
The History of Sugar in the Diet
Until relatively recently, sugar was a rarely-available treat.
An opinion piece in the New York Times recently illustrated that history concisely, and compared it to the present day:
Up until just a few hundred years ago, concentrated sugars were essentially absent from the human diet — besides, perhaps, the fortuitous find of small quantities of wild honey. Sugar would have been a rare source of energy in the environment, and strong cravings for it would have benefited human survival. Sugar cravings would have prompted searches for sweet foods, the kind that help us layer on fat and store energy for times of scarcity.
Today added sugar is everywhere, used in approximately 75 percent of packaged foods purchased in the United States.3
The net is that the body is poorly adapted to the availability of excess sugar. A craving that used to result in occasional reward now leads to nearly constant reward.
Think about that last sentence. People who eat lots of processed and packaged foods may be eating them because their brains are seeking a reward–not because they’re hungry.
It’s pretty enlightening to see the degree to which manufacturers of snack foods like potato chips engineer the taste with the objective of getting you to eat more. This objective doesn’t include, by the way, any assurance that eating a lot is healthy for you.
The goal is to move more product off the shelves.
In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers.4
But there’s more to it.
Restaurant foods are loaded with sugars, as well as fats and salt.
Lots of the dishes served at sit-down restaurants are made with excess sugars in order to motivate you to come back.
Is there any reason to think restaurant chains wouldn’t implement the “food optimization” lessons learned by food manufacturers?
Think about Darden Restuarants, owners of Olive Garden, Capital Grille, and LongHorn Steakhouse. They were owned by General Mills for 25 years, including the 1980s when a lot of scientific experimentation on food optimization was taking place.
And that was when fat was being ostracized in favor of sugar.
Important Effects of Sugar
What if you are addicted to sugar? What difference does it make–sugar is empty calories, no?
Let’s look at the impacts that are particularly relevant to those building strength and overall health through bodyweight training and healthy eating.
1. Processed Fructose Causes Fat Gain
Dr. Joseph Mercola summarizes the direct path from eating fructose to the buildup of fat on your body.
[A]fter eating fructose, most of the metabolic burden rests on your liver. This is NOT the case with glucose, of which your liver breaks down only 20 percent. Nearly every cell in your body utilizes glucose, so it’s normally “burned up” immediately after consumption.
So where does all of this fructose go, once you consume it?
Onto your thighs. It is turned into FAT (VLDL and triglycerides), which means more fat deposits throughout your body.5
So if you’re trying to eat healthy and build your strength in order to maintain your proportions, eating lots of sugar is going to act against that objective.
A lot of the impact here is from high fructose corn syrup found in many processed foods including sports drinks.
Because there’s no fiber, the sugar is processed quickly and becomes abdominal fat.
In fact, putting on the pounds hides your muscle gains. So you’re growing, but not in a good way.
Fruit-based fructose is healthier for bodybuilding.
Keeping the fiber with the fruit is key. This is why smoothies are dangerous. Smoothies remove the fiber but leave the fructose.
Eating fruit whole retains the fiber.
Does this mean you should avoid whole food sources of fructose like fruit when mass building? No, because it’s difficult to consume large amounts of fructose when consuming whole fruit. For example, while a raw apple has a lot of fructose per calorie, it is difficult to consume large amounts of calories from an apple. A single apple has around 80 calories; you would have to consume 3 apples just to get 23 grams of fructose…
The biggest things to avoid are highly processed foods and sugary drinks, which are often high in fructose. For example, one can of cola has almost 30 grams of fructose. Also, if you are using a high calorie, mass-building shake as part of your nutritional regimen, you will want to check the ingredients. Many mass-building shake formulations are sweetened primarily with fructose. In fact, I’ve seen some formulations to contain up to 100 grams of fructose per serving.6
2. Fructose elevates uric acid.
Why is this important to those trying to build strength?
If you happen to be eating significant amounts of protein, be aware that both fructose and protein serve to elevate uric acid. You probably don’t want to be overindulging on both.
Further, studies have shown that the increase in uric acid tied to fructose intake also contributes to fat accumulation.7
Uric acid has long been known as a marker of chronic inflammation.8 One of the reasons we don’t advise endurance cardio is that it, too, is a contributor to chronic inflammation.
That’s a few contributors to think about.
3. Sugar suppresses the immune system
In 1973, it was shown that ingestion of large amounts of sugar (100g) directly impacted neutrophils (white blood cells) and their ability to attack bacteria.
While there is controversy about that study.9 — for example, that it wasn’t performed in the body but rather in a petri dish — I find it interesting that this information isn’t widely considered.
It’s not uncommon to hear about diabetics getting sick frequently. Think there’s not a correlation?
What does this have to do with bodyweight and healthy eating?
Admittedly this is slightly tenuous, but if you’re sick, you’re not working out and building your strength. So it’s worth it to eliminate those things preventing you from following your path!
4. Sugar lowers Testosterone levels.
Testosterone is particularly important to men and women who are trying to gain strength. Testosterone is the hormone
A study documented that testosterone levels were lower after consuming sugar, up to two hours later.10 The conclusion reached in the study was that testosterone levels should be tested after fasting overnight, so that accurate numbers can be captured.
In a separate study, glucose lowered testosterone secretion for two hours.11
But what if that immediate response has a cumulative effect?
Why take the chance?
Testosterone is the hormone that builds muscle, and the one that regulates your sex drive. Do you want either one to be compromised?
How do you Quit?
So now that you understand the impact excess sugar has on your strength gains–not even touching on the dozens of other ways it adversely impacts your health–how do you break the habit?
In my experience, as I struggle through this with you, there are a few things that help:
- Awareness. You already have this. Keep these adverse effects in mind as you go about your day. It’ll help you make better choices.
- Avoid temptation. Reduce the sugary items in your house, so you’re not tempted to eat them. Don’t bring change with you to work, so you can’t buy something from the vending machine.
- Reprogram your tongue. Over time, start developing a taste for non-sweet items. Over a period of time, I’ve replaced most sweet beverages with unsweet hot tea, red wine and water. I rarely splurge on a beer now, and I never ever drink soda.
- Eat foods high in protein, healthy fat, and fiber. Satiating foods keep you full and reduce your cravings. My regular office snack is now baby carrots with almond butter. This is high fat mixed with vegetable fiber; I’ve seen no weight gain, but I find myself tempted to run to the vending machine less frequently.
- Drink water. I discovered over time that part of my feeling of hunger was really thirst. I was dehydrated! And your body won’t tell you (in the form of making you thirsty) until you’re significantly dehydrated. Drinking water helps fill you up — so why not do it preemptively?
Back to item 3. Why reprogram your taste buds rather than using artificial sweetener as a crutch? There are plenty of studies that show artificial sweeteners cause the body to crave more sweets, through a complex biochemical reaction in which the body expects calories due to the sweetness, but the calories never come.
How to Kill Your Cravings For Good
If you’re still fighting the sugar curse, and you’ve struck out with other programs, I’d like to invite you to check out Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings, by Kevin at Rebooted Body.
Shut Down is a 4-week program that focuses not only on the physical dependency, but the psychological triggers. The mental part is just as important as the physical.
The reason I endorse it is that it’s a whole food based program. Further, it includes the coaching you need to stick with it. I can attest that if you live with someone, and they’re not as committed as you are, it’s tough to succeed.
I encourage you to check out the Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings Online Program.
Image Source: Flickr
1 Tea consumption may improve biomarkers of insulin sensitivity and risk factors for diabetes. – Journal of Nutrition
2 Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. – Neuroscience.
3 Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive – New York Times
4 The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food – New York Times
8 Uric Acid in Chronic Heart Failure – European Heart Journal
9 Avoid THIS and Cut Your Risk of Cold and Flus – Progressive Health
11 Glucose ingestion acutely lowers pulsatile LH and basal testosterone secretion in men – American Journal of Physiology