For optimal body composition, sugar is absolutely more trouble than it is worth. Eliminating sugar is the best choice if you want to get and stay lean, prevent diabetes and avoid a host of health problems, including cancer, hypertension, heart disease, and accelerated aging. It’s not that sugar directly causes these health problems, but we eat WAY too much of it every day, making us fat and degrading our health. Sugar should be used as a delicacy in small quantities once a week, but the average American eats 22 to 28 teaspoons of added sugars A DAY—that’s 350 to 450 calories, or nearly a pound a week, that few people can afford.
Many people think that sugar is okay in moderation, or that there are sweeteners that are better for us because they are raw, natural, or come from a plant. Just because it’s raw and plant-based doesn’t mean it won’t make you fat!
All sweeteners except artificial ones come from plants—refined sugar, brown sugar, molasses, evaporated cane juice, raw sugar, organic cane sugar, agave, maple syrup, fructose, juice concentrates, and corn syrup—they are all completely natural. Honey, the remaining sweetener, contains vitamins, antioxidants, and is thought to enhance the immune system, but if fat loss is your goal, it should be avoided because of the high fructose content.
To help you make your own informed decision about sugar intake, this article will look at how the body processes different forms of sugar and what the research tells us about sugar and health risks.
What Is Sugar?
For the purpose of this article, sugar includes all the sweeteners that are produced from sugar cane, sugar beets, corn, fruit, honey, agave, maple syrup, and fructose. White and brown sugar, evaporated can juice, raw sugar, and molasses are all made up of a sugar molecule called sucrose, which is about half fructose and half glucose.
Glucose is the sugar that is turned into glycogen and stored in the cells for energy, or if there is too much of it, it is turned into fat. Glucose isn’t sweet by itself, but when paired with fructose in an equal ratio it is what we know as sugar. If you need to replenish energy stores quickly after a very intense workout, glucose is the best choice, but from a body composition perspective it should be avoided.
Fructose is the sugar that is found in fruits and some vegetables, and it makes up at least 48 percent or more of all the sweeteners mentioned here. Fructose is metabolized by the liver and it doesn’t raise insulin. Still, studies show that eating foods with added fructose can put you at greater risk of diabetes, and lead to significant fat gain, especially visceral belly fat.
Orange and grape juice concentrates contain slightly more than half fructose, with the rest being glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, whereas agave is 88 percent fructose and 12 percent glucose, which is the reason that agave is not the wonder sweetener that it has been marketed to be. It is true agave has a low-glycemic index since it is mostly fructose, but that whopping dose of fructose appears to wreck metabolic havoc on the body.
The Problem With Sugar
There is a serious flaw with the argument that sugar is okay in moderation. Humans don’t seem to be able to control themselves when it comes to sugar intake. And for good reason: Sugar has the effect of altering hormone response and brain function so that we are driven to eat more of it.
Wakefulness, energy expenditure, and the brain’s reward center are all downregulated when we eat sugar. A network of transmitters in the brain respond to the food you eat, and if you eat carbs, especially sugary carbs, the network is inhibited, slowing energy use and making you less alert. For example, dopamine signaling is reduced so you feel less pleasure and want more sweets, while the hormone leptin, which suppresses hunger and signals fullness, is not elevated.
Humans aren’t to “blame” for loving sugar or being unable to control their intake since it basically hijacks the brain to persistently crave more sugar, a craving that the vast majority of humans are not able to overcome. And many people eat some if not lots of processed foods, nearly all of which contain some added sugar, making their intake that much higher and intensifying their cravings. Therefore, if you or your children eat foods with added sugar on a regular basis, there’s little doubt that you are getting too much, and putting yourself at risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and disease.
If you don’t eat processed foods EVER, you have a shot at completely avoiding sugar, or choosing to eat it only in severe moderation. However, if are trying to lose fat, completely avoiding sugar is the best solution.
The Problem With Fructose
Fructose was originally thought to be a great alternative to sucrose because it doesn’t affect insulin. Recent research shows that when you consume food or beverages with added fructose, it will slow your metabolic rate, halt fat burning in the body, and the liver will turn any excess fructose into fat very quickly.
For example, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the effects of eating a diet that was high in fructose-based carbohydrates with one that included mainly glucose-derived carbs on body composition in overweight individuals. Researchers had participants eat a diet that was 15 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 55 percent carbohydrate (30 percent was complex carbs and 25 percent was either fructose or glucose) for 10 weeks.
Both groups gained fat, but the fructose group gained more fat, most of which was visceral belly fat. They also decreased their resting metabolic rate, meaning they burned fewer calories at rest after the 10 weeks, which is never a good thing because it will lead to an excess energy balance and fat gain. Fat burning was also decreased in the group that ate the fructose, which is a very unfavorable result because it leads to fat accumulation in the liver and decreased insulin sensitivity.
Other studies provide additional evidence that fructose is bad news: A Harvard review of 300,000 people found that for each 12-ounce serving of high-fructose corn syrup sweetened beverage ingested a day, diabetes risk was increased by 15 percent, and a similar finding linked fructose sweetened beverages with greater visceral belly fat and insulin resistance in teenagers. Aside from causing visceral belly fat gain, diabetes risk, and lower metabolic rate, fructose intake is thought to lead to elevated blood triglyceride levels, which is a primary indicator of heart disease risk.
All of these negative effects are set off by what happens with the liver when too much fructose enters the system. The liver can process a small amount of fructose efficiently, such as the amount found in a serving of blueberries or raspberries. But more than a few grams gets converted quickly by the liver into fat, and the liver appears to favor putting the fat into muscle, the abdominal cavity, and the liver itself. All this fat is called visceral fat and it is the worst kind for you to have because it sends out inflammatory factors that promote insulin resistance, raise triglycerides, and degrade muscle tissue.
Ten Tips To Avoid Sugar For A Better Body Composition
1) Eliminate All Processed Foods
The easiest way to avoid sugar is to eliminate all processed foods. Opt for whole foods: Organic meat, whole milk dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, vegetables, and fruit.
2) Read All Food Labels
You should avoid all processed and packaged foods, but in the rare cases that you can’t, try to buy foods that don’t have added sugar. First, check the ingredient list for all of the following: Sugar, evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, agave, honey, molasses, brown sugar, and fruit juice concentrates.
Second, check the nutrition label to find out how many grams of sugar are in the food. This may be added sugar or naturally occurring sugar, which is found in milk, plain yogurt, and fruit. Don’t worry about naturally occurring sugar as long as you eat reasonable quantities. Obviously, you want to avoid added sugars whenever possible.
3) Start By Limiting Sugar Intake to 100 Calories a Day
If you are a sugar junkie and can’t fathom the idea of eliminating sugar, start by cutting back. Shoot for 100 calories a day, which is equal to about 25 grams a day or 6.5 teaspoons.
4) Avoid All Sweetened Beverages
Avoid all sweetened beverages and all other beverages that have added sugar, including diet and regular soda, tea, sports drinks, energy drinks, etc. There is compelling evidence that sweetened beverages of all kinds are linked to accelerated fat gain, greater risk of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems because liquid sugars are turned into fat very quickly and alter insulin sensitivity.
5) Avoid Fruit Juice
Avoid fruit juice. Juice contains none of the fiber of fruit and most fruit juices have a whopping dose of added sugar. Even if they don’t, from a body composition perspective, you need to avoid them because the liquid sugar (much of which is fructose) is quickly converted into fat just like with soda.
6) Minimize Your Fructose Intake
Save your fructose intake for fruit and avoid all other forms. Most fruits are high in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, making them an important part of your diet. For fat loss, limit your intake to 5 to 10 grams of fructose a day, with very active individuals maxing out at 20 grams. Lower fructose fruits and vegetables include most berries, nectarines, grapefruit, avocado and tomatoes. Bananas, apples, and pears are on the high end of the scale.
7) Don’t Add Sugar To Foods or Beverages
If you currently drink tea or coffee with added sugar, stop.
8) Accept that There Is No Healthy Sugar
Although added fructose may be the worst sugar because of how it slows metabolism and halts fat burning, there is NO nutritional value in any form of sugar except possibly honey. For optimal body composition, avoid ALL sugar. Be aware that “healthier” sweeteners are a myth—agave is one of the worst sweeteners because it is almost pure liquid fructose with an even higher fructose content (88 percent) than high-fructose corn syrup!
9) Avoid Diet SweetenersAvoid diet soda and other diet sweeteners because many are chemically derived and have been linked with severe health problems and cancer risk. Ingesting sweeteners such as aspartame, splenda, etc., increases your toxic load, and there is evidence that humans naturally use sweet taste to predict the caloric content of food. Eating sweet non-caloric substances may degrade this predictive relationship, leading us to eat more calories, and producing fat gain.
For example, controlled studies of rats have found that feeding the animals artificially sweetened food reduces the correlation between sweet taste and the caloric content of foods, resulting in increased energy intake, fat gain, and a blunted thermic response to sweet-tasting diets. This means the rats’ bodies adapted to burn fewer calories in response to the same amount of food intake, indicating a slower metabolic rate.
10) Enjoy Stevia in Moderation
Stevia is a non-caloric sweetener that comes from the stevia bush, which is native to South America. It has been found to improve glucose tolerance and may help fight diabetes. Other studies have shown it can lower blood pressure and may convey additional health benefits. Stevia doesn’t cause an insulin release but it does need to be metabolized by the body, which happens via a detoxification through the liver and kidneys. So, it’s not turned into fat or used as energy in the body, but it still must be processed and excreted, meaning you don’t want to eat huge quantities.