Not so long ago we were told to avoid fat at all costs. There were claims that high levels of fat consumption caused weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Whilst being true to some degree this has now changed and the new enemy it seems is sugar. You may have heard of the increased sugar tax in the most recent budget as the government wages war on the problems associated with this sweet, white substance and this is for good reason. This blog post focuses on what sugar is, why it is bad for us (in large doses) and how it can actually be beneficial in the right amounts and at the right time.

What is sugar?

Sugar is a name thrown around the media and fitness world, however, this term is actually used incorrectly. The term ‘sugar’ is defined to encompass any short-chain carbohydrate composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. As a result, the term sugar doesn’t just concern the granulated sucrose we put in our coffee, but a whole host of other molecules including fruit, milk and other products too.

Sugar comes in two groups, monosaccharides such as fructose, glucose and galactose, and disaccharides which are lactose, maltose, and sucrose. Monosaccharides represent one molecule which disaccharides represent two molecules joined together. Each molecule is a ring of carbon atoms to which hydrogen and oxygen are bonded. One ring on its own represents a monosaccharide and two or more rings joined together to represent a disaccharide.

What happens when we eat sugar?

When we eat sugar, one of two things happens. If the body needs energy it will use the sugar to fuel muscles. If it doesn’t it will store it as fat. In addition, when the body detects sugar it releases insulin. This helps store the sugar but too much can cause the associated crash in energy. The more your body releases insulin, the less likely it is to use the sugar as an energy source and instead store it.

Whys is it bad for us?

So, having acquired a basic understanding of sugar, it’s now time to see what negative impacts it has on the body. The first is a poor nutrient value. Sugar contains no nutrients or minerals meaning it’s only good for energy. If you don’t need the energy, then your body will just store it as fat. Not only this, consuming sugar in high amounts can force the liver to take up the strain of the associated fat storage. Fructose (found in fruit) is a key culprit for this, however, this only applies to refined fructose and not to the fructose found in fruit.

As mentioned above, insulin is a very important hormone in the body. It regulates sugar levels and tells the body to start burning sugar instead of fat. By having lots of sugar your body produces so much insulin on such a continual level that the body becomes resistant to its release. This can result in the development of diabetes. Added to this are the psychological impacts. Not all calories are created equal. A study on the hunger-suppressing effects of glucose vs fructose-sweetened water showed that the fructose-sweetened water lessened hunger less leading to increased sugar intake.

To make things worse, Sugar is highly addictive and this is one of the major concerns with sugar. Sugar intake causes a massive release of dopamine in the brain. This is great if you’re a wild animal because this will help you search for more sugar and energy, but it’s bad for us. Why? Dopamine is the same chemical released when you take drugs such as cocaine, and sugar has been linked to a higher release of dopamine than cocaine. Yes, sugar is more addictive than cocaine. This means it is very easy to form an addiction to sugar that reduces the risk of curbing consumption. What’s even more disturbing is that this applies even more to artificial sweeteners!

A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association displayed strong evidence that sugar can actually affect the pumping mechanism of your heart and could increase the risk for heart failure and a 2009 study found a positive relationship between glucose consumption and the aging of our cells. Aging of the cells consequently can be the cause of something as simple as wrinkles to something as dire as a chronic disease. But there is other alarming evidence that sugar may affect the aging of your brain as well. A 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health.

When we’re under stress, our stress hormone levels rise; these chemicals are the body’s fight-or-flight emergency crew, sent out to prepare the body for an attack or an escape. These chemicals are also called into action when blood sugar is low. For example, after a blood-sugar spike, there’s a compensatory dive, which causes the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol.

When can it actually be helpful?

The only time excess sugar could be seen as potentially helpful is for athletes. For non-athletes, the addition of sugar to one’s diet will be detrimental. That said, the timing of sugar consumption is crucial. In a recent issue of the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports, researchers found athletes performed significantly faster 45 minutes after eating a low-Gl meal rather than a high-GI meal. A low-GI meal would be an apple with peanut butter or steel-cut oats. Consuming the high-Gl foods an hour before a run was causing athletes to experience a sugar crash, while the low-GI foods were carrying the runners farther and faster into the run.

Studies also suggest that exercising muscles can absorb a combination of fructose and glucose almost 40% faster than glucose alone. This is where most endurance nutrition companies claim their product is the best option for you before or during a run. What most people don’t know is that whole food, like fruit and oatmeal, contains a combination of glucose and fructose as well.

The key for both athletes and non-athletes is to consume low GI foods which help to stabilise blood sugar and keep energy levels consistent throughout the day. The glycemic index, or GI, measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood glucose. Foods are ranked based on how they compare to a reference food — either glucose or white bread. A food with a high GI raises blood glucose more than a food with a medium or low GI. By eating more low GI foods you keep blood sugar levels lower and stave off energy crashes.