Nutrition Coaching: Sugar 101

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Would you believe me if I told you that sugar can be more harmful to your health than fat? Perhaps not, depending on what nutrition camp you come from. The popular “low fat” doctrine of the 80’s and 90’s is still running wild today. However, some scientists are scratching their heads as to why their patient’s health hasn’t improved, even with the elimination of anything that smells like fat from the diet. As we’ll discuss here, chronic obesity, fatigue, and even heart disease can be traced to sugar intake, so maybe we were looking in the wrong direction all along.

Let’s Make a Distinction

                Now to be clear, all sugar is not created equal. The sugar found in fruit – like bananas, apricots, blueberries – is not what we’re talking about here. While it’s not wise to consume endless amounts of raisins and dates, several servings of fruit a day is obviously a fine choice for most clients. UEFP clients know how much fruit to take in based on their meal plan.

The sugar we are talking about can be found all over though. Of course pastries, sodas, and candy top the list but don’t be fooled; condiments like barbeque sauce and salad dressing will sneak sugars in to provide you with a sweet taste. Even traditional “healthy” foods like yogurt and almond milk will have plenty of sugar per serving. If you eat out a lot during the week, you mine as well throw in the towel on trying to monitor sugar intake. There’s no way to quantify how much sugar the cooks in the kitchen are using in their sauces and breading.

Sources of sugar like maple syrup and dark chocolate are perfectly fine in moderation; if you’re maintaining 80-90% compliancy on your food log, one or two meals per week with these foods isn’t going to break you from reaching your goals. However, the jury it still out on “sugar free” foods. Research has shown that many artificial sweeteners can mimic the effects of sugar that we’re going to discuss, but to be fair, not all research is conclusive. But to be safe, avoiding things like aspartame and agave nectar are wise choices.

So What Happens to Sugar in the Body?

                You have a digestive organ called the pancreas; its job is to release a hormone called insulin. Insulin’s role is to then carry food where it should ideally go. For example:

-Insulin will carry protein to your muscles to rebuild them after you squat, lunge, and press at the studio

-It will shuttle complex carbs like brown rice into your muscles to replenish your energy after you do an interval workout

-It can also carry excess nutrients to your fat sites to be stored

Insulin goes ga-ga for sugar and refined carbs like French fries, pretzels, and bread (to name just a few). Insulin is like Apollo Creed and sugar is Ivan Drago – Creed can only do so much against Drago’s destructive offense. Insulin will try to shuttle the sugar to various sites in your body but it can become exhausted. As a result, sugar can get stored as fat as well as converting to triglycerides in the blood (or the amount of fat in your bloodstream). Things don’t end here- if your pancreas keeps churning out insulin to battle with incoming sugars and refined carbs, your body starts creating cholesterol from all that excessive insulin. In the end, your LDL, or bad cholesterol, can increase because of this. Meanwhile, you’ll continue to eat protein and carbs but the body can’t tolerate these things either, so it ends up storing these things as body fat.

This excess sugar can also numb your muscles. The cells on your muscles that accept food can basically become annoyed by all this sugar floating around and literally “shut off.” This just enhances the cycle we talked about in the previous paragraph. With all that sugar floating in your bloodstream, the bodies fat storage mechanisms turn on but it’s also possible that the sugar can literally fry the nerves of your limbs and eyes. This is why diabetics are at risk for going blind and becoming amputees.

From just a weight loss perspective, insulin can block carnitine from working its magic. Carnitine is an amino acid that brings fats into your muscles to be burned. So no matter hard you workout a diet high in refined carbs shuts down your fat metabolism.

Bonus Tip: Since sugars are sticky, they can actually bind to proteins. This process is called glycation. These sugar-protein bad boys can then block your blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even suppress your immune system. Some scientists consider glycation to accelerate the aging process. In this case, protein is an innocent bystander while sugar is our lead suspect.

What Does Research Tell Us

                When subjects increased their intake of simple sugars, scientists found that the subjects had a 32% increase in the triglycerides in their blood (1). Here’s an interesting study: scientists measured the sugar intake of subjects for several years. Those who ate more sugar/bad carbs added a quarter inch to their waistline….every year for six years (2).

But these sugars don’t just affect your waistline – they can literally mess with your head. In a similar study to the first one mentioned, subjects who ingested more simple sugars had their brain activity measured. What they found was pretty startling – the sugar caused areas in the brain associated with rewards and cravings to be very active (3)! So sugar basically caused you to crave more sugar.

What to Do

                Of course limiting your sugar intake is rule number one. Again, many clients have fruit spread throughout their meal plan and this is perfectly fine. Staying within your compliancy rate will also help; frequent carry out meals, breads, and snacking will override any effects from a workout. For those with a sweet tooth, Stevia has been shown to make your food tasty without all the nasty effects of what we talked about (as of right now research hasn’t shown conclusive negative evidence with Stevia). In the meantime, read the labels of your yogurts and such for added sugars.

Purposeful exercise will make sure your muscles and insulin play nice so the body isn’t storing any food you eat as fat. By purposeful exercise, we’re talking resistance training and interval/sprint work. Low intensity aerobics like walking and hiking haven’t been shown to be powerful enough to help. Neither has long distance running. When diabetics performed interval sessions that lasted only 20 minutes long (they did 60 second interval sprints on a cycle) that managed to lower their resting blood sugar (4). This is why we circuit train at the studio and your homework is various interval workouts.

Every client is different though; if you’ve had a lifetime of high sugar intake, it can take a while for the body to reverse itself. In some cases, supplementation with amino acids and minerals can help too. There’s also the concept of nutrient timing. This is where we decide when to eat carbs and if we allow certain sugars.

In Summary

                – We know that sugar is bad. Excess sugar and refined carbs can be a culprit in heart disease, possibly more so than fat

– High levels of insulin can actually block the body’s ability to burn fat even if you do workout

-Purposeful exercise can help repair our cells so food is supposed to go where it should go (protein goes to muscle, complex carbs don’t get stored as fat)

What to Do Now

                Still have questions? Shoot me an email or schedule a nutrition session. In the meantime, keep up the great work and see you at your next session!


1. Bantle, John P. “Dietary Fructose and Metabolic Syndrome and Diabets 1-3.” (2009) The Journal of Nutrition. 139.6: 1263S-1268S

2. Du, H. DL Van Der, A., MME Van, B., et al. “Dietary Glyaemic Index, Glycaemic Load, and Subsequent Changes of Weight and Waist Circumference in European Men and Women.”(2009) International Journal of Obesity 33: 1280-1288

3. Lennerz, B.S., Alsop, D.C., Holsen, L.M., Stern, E., Rojas, R., Ebbeling, C.B., Goldstein, J.M., Ludwig, D.S. “Effects of Dietary Glycemic Index on Brain Regions to Reward Craving in Men.”(2013) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

4. Little, J.P., Gillen, J.B., et al. “Low Volume High Intensity Interval Training Reduces Hyperglycemia and Increases Muscle Mitochondrial Capacity in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes.”(2011) Journal of Applied Physiology. 111:1554-1560.

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