The first nutrition books I ever got into were all anti-sugar books. My days early in my personal training career were spent wandering the gym floor, giving unsolicited advice about how sugar was calcifying all of our arteries and how that if someone really wanted to take control of their health and their future, they had to get rid of the sugar shackles that were holding them down.
I’d happily talk to a client about why the bacon they had that morning wasn’t slowly killing them, it was the sugar that was in the muffin that they had that afternoon. In fact, I’m pretty sure there were more than a couple of clients I told to eat more bacon and eggs every morning, so long as they’d promise to cut back on their fruit consumption. Because, of course, I’d confidently determined that it was the sugar in their morning orange that was causing them to hold onto body fat.
Looking back at some of the things I said to clients in the years 2008-2011, I can’t help but cringe.
That period in the mid-2000’s up until the Keto diet started to become the diet du jour a couple of years ago was really nuts. Every which way you turned there was a new book out about all the ways that sugar was going to ruin our lives. It was responsible for why we were all gaining weight, why the Great Recession happened, and it was definitely the reason your Aunt Karen couldn’t manage to stick to her diet. At least if you let her tell the story.
Wild times, right? It seems like the fear-mongering around sugar has slowed down a little bit, but diets, like fashion, are cyclical, and we can be sure that at some point in the near future we’re going to hear all about how sugar is once again evil, how it’s once again here to steal all of our hopes and dreams, or whatever new and terrifying thing media outlets can come up with.
At the same time, there’s a lot that doesn’t get talked about when it comes to sugar. Most of the news around sugar has to do with a lot of fear and a few facts. But at Stronger U, we like to operate a bit differently. We’re not exactly big on selling fear and hiding facts. In fact, we’re the exact opposite. So we’re here to tell the sugar story. The sugar story, backed by science, that you haven’t heard about yet.
Where did sugar come from?
To say that without sugar we wouldn’t have the global economy we all know and enjoy today might be one of the most dramatic understatements of the 21st century. In many other ways, following the development of sugar and it’s spread throughout the world is like following the different periods of human history. Sugar and people have been intimately tied together for millennia now, and no matter what the best seller section at the bookstore tries to tell you, that won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Sugar is thought to have first been domesticated in the South Asian seas (Seriously, there’s a whole website on the history of sugar. It’s worth checking out in case you ever wanna lose a few hours.) somewhere around 10,000 years ago, and it seems to have first been converted into crystallized form by an Indian chemist in the 5th century, AD. Once that very smart chemist started crystallizing sucrose, the game changed forever. Sugar became one of the most expensive and highly demanded trading items in the world, and sugar cane spread rapidly. Spreading to Asia and the Middle East, Egypt, Spain, and then moving to the “New World” as European colonizers moved into North, Central, and South America — bringing and cultivating the slave trade with them, partly in order to support the demand of the sugar trade.
It was this slave trade that caused the prices of sugar to fall, making it a more affordable commodity for more and more people across the developing world. At the same time, it was the rise of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution that truly made sugar into the household phenomenon that it is today. As the process of refining, crystallization, and transportation all become easier, faster, and cheaper, sugar started showing up more and more in places like general stores and little-known food items like molasses.
What is sugar?
So if you’re ready to get your world view completely turned upside down, you showed up to the right spot. Remember all of those headlines that talked about getting rid of sugar? Or the article you read that explained how if you gave up sugar your body would immediately fall to its knees in praise of your great decision making? Well, I certainly don’t mean to be pedantic, but when anyone stops to think about the recent obsession we’ve had with sugar, one of the things they might start to recognize is without that very sugar that we’re working so hard to demonize is the very thing that helps fuel most of our living, breathing, and moving.
Let’s learn about the body, shall we!?
Learning a bit more about the various structures and roles that sugar can play in the body is paramount to being able to understand some of the fear-mongering around sugar, and also understand why it isn’t always worth stressing about.
Sugar, in it’s simplest form, comes in what is known as a monosaccharide. Monosaccharides are the simplest forms of sugar that you’ll find in the body, and they’re the last stop on the chemical sugar train. It turns out that your body loves monosaccharides. They’re an easily digestible and usable source of energy because your body doesn’t have to spend much time breaking them down. Sources of monosaccharides can include things you’ve heard of like sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), and galactose (milk sugar). Simple and easily digestible sugars are the ones that your body can utilize quickly, and they’re the poster children for that “sugar rush” that your parents warned you about.
But sugar isn’t just a monosaccharide world. There are all kinds of saccharides that include: disaccharide, polysaccharides, and oligosaccharides. All of which are just sugar molecules with more growing and varying degrees of monosaccharide links. So when you’re eating some brown rice because you want some “complex carbohydrates” you’re not eating that brown rice because it’s a carbohydrate that is complex in that it feels existential angst. It’s a complex carbohydrate because it contains multiple monosaccharide links, meaning it takes longer to break down in the body, providing longer lasting energy. Which is where we get the call for needing complex carbohydrates when we’ll have a busy day ahead of us.
This is the exact same reason why you’ll also see various endurance athletes, bodybuilders, and other athletes eat something that is almost pure sugar sometimes in the middle of a long workout, in the middle of a game, or right after a hard training session. They aren’t eating those simple sugars just because they got done doing deadlifts and needed some Mike and Ike’s. Those simple sugars are easily digestible carbs that can, in turn, be easily converted to glucose and used for energy, and when you’re an individual with a relatively high training load, it often makes sense to try and find easily digestible carbohydrates somewhere around your training sessions to help provide readily available fuel.
The whole point of all of these long words that end in -ose and -saccharide being that our bodies actually love sugar. It’s one of the basic substance that keeps us alive. The human body looks at sugar as an easily digestible, efficient, and tasty way to get energy. That’s half the reason we love the sweet taste of sugar to begin with. Back in the day when our ancestors were wandering around on the plains, we adapted to develop a love of that sugary taste because it then incentivized us to eat more sweet tasting things. Food didn’t always come readily available, and for our ancestors, survival meant being able to adapt to a number of different situations. One of the most favorable adaptations someone could possibly make is loving the taste of an easily digestible and calorie dense food like sugar.
So, are we really eating more sugar than ever before?
By this point, I think we’ve all heard that we’re eating more sugar than ever before. That it’s rotting our teeth, that it’s clogging up our arteries, that it’s killing our liver, and that it’s making the divorce rate climb. In fact, plenty of you have probably seen this graph floating around the Internet, showing the shocking rise in sugar consumption along with reasons that we need to cut it out.
But this is where those annoying things like facts get in the way. While that graph looking at sugar consumption up to the year 2000 is certainly scary to look at it, it doesn’t quite tell the full story about what’s going on. When we zoom out and look at the graph so that it includes the most recent years, we actually see a totally different picture.
The picture we start to see when we zoom out is that sugar intake has actually started to plummet, reaching pre-1990 levels. And yet along that same time obesity still continues to rise. That’s because while sugar intake may not being continually on the rise, food intake is. And therein lies the real point that we need to pay attention to when we’re talking about sugar, fat, carbohydrates, or whatever else the media decides that you should be worried about next week.
When talking about something being harmful or dangerous for us, it being harmful or dangerous in the presence of us also eating too many calories on a daily basis is an entirely different ballgame than something being potentially harmful for us while we’re in a calorie controlled diet.
This is especially true when it comes to sugar consumption.
For example, researchers in the UK, conducting a review of the research over the last 5 years, did determine that a diet where someone is ingesting more than 150g of fructose on a daily basis is likely going to reduce insulin sensitivity and likely set those individuals up for health problems in the future.
Here’s the kicker to that: of course 150g of fructose every single day for months on end isn’t likely the best choice for a random grouping of people. First off, that’s 600 calories of nothing but fructose on a daily basis. But equally important, researchers concluded that the adverse health effects that accompany high sugar intake are more prevalent when combined with too many calories on a daily basis. Sugar consumption might actually be the bullet for someone, but it’s consistently eating too many calories that functions as pulling the proverbial trigger.
Do people really have a “sugar problem”?
You know what I’m talking about. Maybe it was at a big networking dinner, a family event, or whatever. But you know those inevitable dinner time conversations that somehow wind up on the topic of diets and someone utters that magic little phrase “I just wished I could, but I can’t give up sugar.” or some other iteration of that phrase.
Is there any truth to that? Do people really have a “sugar problem” where they struggle to regulate sugar intake?
Okay, sure, there are probably some people who actually do have a problem with eating straight table sugar. This is the Internet and I know better than to say something is absolutely wrong or right, so instead what I’ll say is this:
99.9% of people don’t actually have a sugar problem. They have a sugar mixed with fat and salt problem.
There’s a gigantic difference between those two things, and there’s definitely a big difference in how people regulate their behavior when confronted with straight sugar vs. a food that contains sugar and fat concocted in just the right amounts to hit your bliss point and activate the reward centers of your brain to keep you coming back for me.
See, sugar in itself is sweet, but because it’s just sugar, it’s not something that many of us can reasonably overeat in one single sitting. It’s rarely loading up our plates with too much table sugar that gets us in trouble. Where we get in trouble is when sugar combines with salt and fat to do a number to our brains that keep us coming back.
It’s those three food ingredients: sugar, salt, and fat, which light up the orbitofrontal cortex of our brain, the area responsible for the reward response system. When that area of the brain is hit with a shock of stimulus, it does what any biological mechanism that likes stimulus is designed to do, and requests more of that very stimulus. Which keeps people coming back to the foods that have the perfect mix of salt, sugar, and fat. Because it’s those three ingredients and the way they combine to have a proper mouth-feel, to be tasty but not too sweet and not too salty, and to be filling but not too filling, that light up the reward centers of our brain and keep us coming back. Not just sugar in itself.
That’s the big thing that people miss when talking about whether not they have an issue with regulating their sugar intake. The vast majority of people do perfectly fine in regulating how many bananas they’ll have or how much sugar they want to put in their coffee. Where most struggle is when it comes to not buying any more Little Debbie’s, a product specifically designed to light up the reward center of your brain like a Vegas a slot machine, and a product that, if you look at the label, likely has just as much fat as sugar.
A brief note on addiction:
People really like arguing about addiction, and people especially like arguing about sugar addiction. It’s important to at least spend a second to touch on this because sugar addiction is one of those terms that gets regularly thrown out by plenty of people with no real regard as to what they’re saying, what it actually means, or how it might alter how we want to work with that person.
So, first and foremost: sugar in itself isn’t addictive.
In the 80’s you wouldn’t have taken a trip down Skid Row and found a bunch of people trying to score their next sugar packet, and the same can be said for just about any dark and dingy street corner you check out in any major city. People aren’t actively addicted to sugar as a substance. Of course, part of this is in thanks to the fact that sugar isn’t a Schedule II drug with highly addictive properties. It’s a perfectly legal food and food additive that is cheap and easy for just about anyone in the developed world to get their hands on. Trying to compare sugar to something like an illegal substance is like that whole apples and oranges thing. It’s not a fair comparison because it’s not actually the same comparison at all. I know I know, we’ve all seen that picture of a brain scan where it shows sugar lighting up the same areas as cocaine. But what that picture isn’t showing you is that the very same portion of the brain lights up when you eat just about any meal that tastes good. It’s not just a sugar thing, and that’s certainly not to say that sugar and an illegal drug are now on the same playing field.
However, that’s not to say that some people don’t actually struggle with their sugar intake. It could be said that human history is a long story of humans finding a way to act against their own best interests, and regulating our consumption of foods or substances is a perfect example of that. People might not be addicted to sugar by itself, but people can become addicted to things or behaviors. For many, food does become that thing that people struggle to get away from, and it makes all the sense in the world for those same people to keep coming back to highly palatable, rewarding foods. The very foods that have that just-right mix of salt, sugar, and fat. The very foods that light up the reward centers of their brain and incentivize them to keep coming back. To argue that someone who struggles to regulate their intake of hyper-palatable foods isn’t addicted because it doesn’t fit the exact same definition as someone who has experienced the horrors of drug or alcohol addiction is just missing the point.
Which is to say that very few people are going to be strung out on the street corner looking for sugar, but using that example alone as a way to discredit sugar addiction is being dense, overly literal, reductive, and most definitely isn’t treating people who struggle regulating their food intake with the compassion and understanding they deserve. Food addiction and an over-reliance on hyper-palatable foods is a very real problem that quite a few people do deal with. The last thing someone that finds their only hope at the bottom of a box of Cap’n Crunch needs to hear is someone dismissively explaining how they’re not actually addicted to sugar. It’s arguing over semantics and not focusing on the things that actually matter when it comes to helping that person.
So, should you give up sugar?
You probably don’t need to give up sugar, no. Especially if you’re actively working to keep your daily calories in check. But if you wanted to start limiting your sugar consumption, that isn’t really going to be a poor choice, either. By virtue of limiting your sugar intake, most people wind up limiting the number of highly palatable and refined foods that they eat on a daily basis. Those same foods that do a number on your orbitofrontal cortex like we talked about earlier.
Therein lies the real wisdom of trying to limit your sugar intake. It’s not that you start eating less sugar, in itself. It’s that someone who makes that sort of choice starts eating fewer foods that contain high amounts of fat and salt as well, and most likely, those same people start eating more whole and nutrient dense foods.
Above all else, it’s important to remember that sugar intake is one of those highly context-dependent things. Someone that is extremely active and trains hard on a consistent basis is going to have more room to eat sugar on a daily basis, partially thanks in fact to the fact that they’ll just need to eat more calories to fuel their training and activity. Whereas someone that’s more sedentary and trying to lose a little weight will have less room to fit sugar into their day to day food intake, partially thanks to the very fact that they’ll also just be eating fewer calories on a daily basis.
But if you think that you need to swear off the sweet stuff forever in order to be successful on your diet, think again.