Sugar seems to be most feared substance in the fitness world. Janis, expert nutritionist and Meal Ninja Head Coach helps understand the impacts of sugar and the right times to consume it...
Is sugar's bad reputation deserved?
There's a lot of buzz around natural sugar such as coconut sugar vs. refined sugar. Is all sugar equal or are some types of sugar better than others?
Sugar is sugar is sugar. Humans are wired to seek out sugar (along with salt and fat) because sugar was a dense source of calories that historically helped keep us alive. If we look into the history-of-humans-file for sensible guidance, back when sugar refining mills didn't exist: it was a lot of work to crack open a coconut, harvest a beehive, crush and dry a berry or tap a maple tree. Sugar was an essential element of the human diet, but one that also took effort to access. In modern times, we recognize that refined sugar has negative consequences (such as weight gain), and we've therefore categorized sugar as "bad". 21st century humans have been furiously seeking a magical sugar that fulfills our human drive for sugar but that has no "undesirable" side effects. Does anyone remember the agave miracle of 2008/2009?!? Sugar without impact to the body simply doesn't exist: sugars are designed by nature to have an impact on the body (ideally: weight gain). So knowing that sugar is going to have a "side effect", I recommend seeking sugar sources that are as close to natural as possible, such as honey, maple syrup, or birch syrup as those sugar sources also contain trace nutrients and minerals. None of them are miracles, they are all "sugar" - so consume accordingly and with your eyes wide open.
Are there times when consuming sugar can be beneficial, such as post workout?
Your body needs blood sugar to survive. Running a marathon feels difficult precisely because the human body runs out of blood sugar and has to convert fat into sugar, which makes you want to stop running (mile 18, anyone?). So you quite simply need sugar in order to move, breathe, think or have basic organ function. AndALL food (and body fat) can be (and is) eventually converted into sugar: it just depends on how quickly that conversion happens. Eating a straight shot of what we culturally categorize as "sugar" might not be optimal if you are trying to lose weight, but after a Tone House caliber workout, you do want to replenish your blood sugar stores. I'd recommend some nutrients and fiber along with that sugar, though. A smoothie with some fruit can be a great choice, for example.
Following up on the previous question, a lot of readers grew up drinking Gatorade during workouts or athletic events. How does consuming a sports drink with sugar during a high endurance workout impact performance?
You will get better "performance" if you are exercising for longer than an hour (approximate benchmark for when you approximately see blood sugar depletion that affects performance...it will vary from person to person). If you are working out any less than an hour, and you need to examine what you are eating BEFORE you work out. That said, I personally don't dig Gatorade (sorry, Pepsi). It's refined sugar, which has the benefit of hitting your blood stream NOW, without using so much as a shard of your body's resources to extract that sugar. That can be good, but it also can be less than ideal. For example, I personally noticed that Gatorade literally made me feel naseous, because that intense blood sugar spike designed for "performance" quickly turned into an associated crash. That post-Gatorade puke-y feeling mid-way through a marathon was enough to send me out to research a better (but still practical and realistic) source of sustained blood sugar for performance on course. I found two: 1/2 banana (better, but not always practical) or Vega Sport Endurance Gel: still going to increase your blood sugar, but it's free from high-fructose corn syrup (aka, the King of Blood Sugar) and contains coconut oil to prevent the spike and crash. The best recommendation is to try a few different things and figure out what works best in your own body.
For those that have a sweet tooth, what's the best practice to shake it and replace sugary food with the right foods?
Most humans have a "sweet tooth" - it's probably not a genetic specialty of your family alone. You can have sugar, it doesn't need to be on your "ban forever into infinity" list: humans are supposed to eat carbohydrates. But. You ideally want to "upgrade" your sugar to the best quality you can, and try to combine your sugar (carbohydrate) with either a healthy fat and/or some protein in order to keep your blood sugar stable. If you feel like you are on a runaway train when it comes to sugar, you should definitely consider speaking to a health coach for specific advice, as there are a number of reasons why sugar can feel problematic. I've worked with people who actually need more fat in their diet, for example. Feel free to schedule a consultation around this issue with me, if you wish to discuss further.
The biggest takeaway when it comes to sugar...
Don't be afraid, get informed and make decisions that feel good to your body, power your performance and provide as many nutrients as possible.
-Janis, Meal Ninja blackbelt certified nutritionist and Head Coach
Learn more about Janis on our Meet The Head Coach page