Is Sugar the Worst Drug of Them All?

My name is Cat, and I’m hopelessly, undeniably addicted to sugar. And if I had to guess, I’d say you are too.

Seventy percent of Americans are overweight and one third struggle with obesity. It’s hard not to blame the 756 grams of sugar consumed every five days or 130 pounds of sugar per year the average citizen of the great USA is responsible for. It’s especially absurd when compared with the 45 grams consumed every five days in 1822, which is the equivalent of a single can of Coke. Between fancy lattes, microwavable breakfast sandwiches and even packets of instant oatmeal, we often can’t get away with having less than 45 grams of sugar before lunchtime.

Gary Taubes, leading science writer and author of New York Times Magazine cover story “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” says that the chief culprit behind our expanding waistlines and deteriorating health is sugar. Sugar has found its way into practically everything we eat, including a lot of the foods that we consider to be healthy (pro tip: low-fat yogurt can have the same sugar as a candy bar).

For decades, dentists have cursed sugary foods. However, health professionals have only recently blamed sugar for health problems since the early 2000’s. In fact, from the 1950s to around 2000, processed foods loaded with sugars were marketed with a green checkmark declaring it “heart healthy,” regardless of how many unpronounceable ingredients were listed in the small print. According to Taubes, the boom of the low-fat diet and the dramatic increase in sugar consumption associated with it may very well be why we are so fat today.

Let’s break it down.

Depending on our genetic predisposition, our bodies might be better equipped to process sugar as energy, or you might be more likely to store it as fat. However, whether you are blessed with a speedy metabolism or not, there is a lot more room for fat storage than there is for storing sugar.

When we eat sugar in excess our pancreas responds with the hormone insulin. Insulin helps regulate sugar in our blood; the more sugar in the bloodstream, the more insulin is released. Insulin helps store all of this glucose in the liver and muscles as glycogen and in fat cells. If all of this energy in the form of glucose is left unused (we eat a giant bag of popcorn but do nothing other than sitting on our butts, spending the day exploring the depths of the internet), it’s stored in our body as fat to be used on a later day.

Often, when we go on a little sugar binge, our bodies respond by releasing too much insulin, which then causes a drop in blood sugar. This is called hypoglycemia, or a sugar crash. The low energy, which results from sugar crashes causes us to crave more sugar and ultimately, make our bodies dependent on the insulin dumps caused by excess sugar consumption. In other words, we become addicted to that pint of ice cream.

But What About Athletes?

Although I preach about healthy diets and whole foods, I’m honestly not much better about it than a regular customer of Cold Stone Creamery. I spent a morning recently tracking my sugar consumption and I was a full 40 plus grams deep by 11 a.m. That’s a major problem. But as an athlete, it’s easy to feel like the rules don’t apply and 70 miles of running a week warrants a daily raid of the candy aisle.

Because of my high volume of training and active lifestyle, packing on extra pounds isn’t a consequence of the shameful candy wrappers that line my trash can. However, the miles run and calories burned doesn’t make me invincible to the long-term consequences of a high sugar diet, such as hypertension, diabetes and, of course, tooth decay.
Long term consequences of a high sugar diet

So What Can we do?

As athletes, there’s no denying that we need fuel and I don’t personally believe in restrictive diets because they tend to escalate. So in my eyes, cutting out sugar is a slippery slope and because of that, out of the question. We can, however, be more aware of what we put into our bodies and be careful not to consume much more than the recommended amount of sugar per day. An easy way to do that is to avoid processed foods and prepare the majority of your meals in your own kitchen using whole-food ingredients.

If you must have that handful of M&M’s or that morning cinnamon roll is calling your name, indulge yourself close to the time of a workout where it’ll be burned as quick energy rather stored in your muscles. Lastly, if you’re like me and are trying to cut down on the breakfast chocolate, it’s important to remember to maintain balance.