When you think about foods you truly enjoy, what comes to mind? Or, to put it another way, if you wrote down your 10 favorite foods, what would they be?
Here are mine:
- Ice Cream
- Peanut butter
- Chicken Thighs (with crispy skin!)
When you look at my list, you’ll notice 5 of the 10 items contain sugar (ice cream, chocolate, bananas, watermelon, mochi). If you made a list of ten, I can almost guarantee that at least one item will be high in sugar.
Now, I am not here to say that sugar is the devil and that it must be eliminated from your diet to be healthy. On the contrary, evidence shows that sugar (when consumed strategically) can improve athletic performance and recovery (1). However, there are two sides to every coin, and the reality is that the amount of sugar we consume in today’s society is too high. Also, the negative effects that eating too much sugar has on our health is well documented. In this article I will break down what sugar is, how it affects us and our health, and give you 5 strategies to fit sugar into your life while still improving your health and well-being.
Sugar is a carbohydrate that contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. It comes in different forms. It is a simple carbohydrate, meaning it is broken down and turned into energy quickly. There are four main types of sugar, with glucose being the primary form of sugar used by our bodies. Glucose is converted into glycogen and stored in the muscles as potential energy to be deployed during exercise. The other 3 common types of sugar are fructose (from fruit), sucrose (table sugar), and lactose (from dairy). At the end of the metabolization of any carbohydrate, you end up with glucose, which is the easiest form of sugar for our bodies to use.
The problem with sugar in our diets nowadays is that we are not active enough to burn all the sugar we eat. When we eat sugar but don’t use the energy right away, our body intelligently stores it as body fat. Our bodies do this because at the end of the day it wants to conserve energy for survival purposes - more energy stores, more able to endure prolonged food scarcity. The problems arise because excess adipose tissue is correlated with virtually every chronic disease, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as increased risk of mortality. Along with those risks, excess sugar is linked to metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance - both of which increase risk for type 2 diabetes.
So, with all the negative press on sugar, how can I as a health coach say that it’s okay to have sugar? It all comes down to strategy and making sure that your quantity, quality, and timing of sugar are spot on. Below are the five ways to be sure sugar is not taking anything away from your energy, progress, or life.
Top 5 Strategies to Eat Sugar While Still Improving Your Health
1. Eat sugar directly after exercise.
Yes, after, not before. Sugar is water soluble and needs to be combined with water for your body to metabolize it. With that, sugar dehydrates you, so consuming it after a workout when you will already be drinking water is ideal. Plus, it will immediately restore the lost glycogen in your muscles so you can start the recovery process ASAP. If you eat a lot of sugar before a workout, your muscles will look great, but it is not ideal for performance as it will dehydrate you.
2. Focus on natural sugars rather than added sugars.
When you read a nutrition label, you will see Sugar and Added Sugars are listed separately. Foods with sugar but none added areconsidered natural sugars. While natural sugars are slightly more nutrient dense than added sugars, the biggest difference is that most foods with no added sugars will contain fiber. On the flip side, many foods that have added sugars contain other food additives and chemicals that are not so great for us while also being devoid of fiber. Some foods that are high in natural sugars with no added are; pineapple, bananas, apples, figs, dates, dried mango, berries, essentially all fruits, and various different brands of fruit bars.
3. Decrease your lactose intake.
There is evidence (2) that humans stop producing lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose, after primary breastfeeding years (ages 2 to 5). We know this, and we still drink lactose and sugar laden cow’s milk on the regular. If you have never taken a break from dairy, I recommend doing a 3-7 day challenge with yourself where you limit dairy consumption and see how you feel - you’ll never know if you never try.
4. Do not eat sugar before bed.
Eating sugar before bed is a double whammy as it will likely be turned into body fat and it can interfere with your sleep patterns. Instead, try to consume any sugar earlier in the day, and if you have a sugary snack in the evening, go for a quick 15 minutes walk to boost your metabolism and work through it.
5. Enjoy the experience.
Look, if you are going to eat sugar the last thing to do is feel guilty or shame yourself for it. You are a human on planet earth and you need to have moments in your life that you enjoy - and if those moments include cake and ice cream, then enjoy the damn cake and ice cream. That doesn’t mean it should be an everyday habit but make sure to enjoy it when you do eat those fun foods.
In short, sugar is everywhere and trying to completely avoid it will likely lead to overindulgence later on. We need to have foods we enjoy for mental and emotional health just as much as we need to eat healthfully for physical health. Be mindful and strategic with your consumption of sugar and it will not be an issue for you.
1. Top 5 Sugar Myths. https://straighthealth.com/sugar-myths/
2. On the Evolution of Lactase in Humans. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-genom-091416-035340