Is Sugar Bad For You? Will it make you fat?
Sugar gets a really bad rap. With all the sensationalized headlines, and fear mongering surrounding sugar and it’s supposed evils, it’s hard not to fall into the belief that maybe, just maybe it’s really that bad for us.
Some of the most popular news and fitness sources claim the following:
- Fat doesn’t make you fat, but sugar does
- Sugar is as addictive as cocaine
- Sugar will make you sick and unhealthy
The list goes on and on and on.
The problem with this is all context, and in today’s article I’m going to present to you an alternate view with the hopes you’ll have an open mind and consider another argument before buying into a bunch of claims that might not be true.
Most people’s reasoning for abandoning, and even demonizing sugar, is based on flawed logic, and many times, emotional reasons.
And when emotions get involved, it’s typically difficult to think straight.
Ironically (or maybe not), most of the articles in the media demonizing sugar play on the emotions. Headlines such as:
- Want To Lose Fat? Don’t Ever Eat These Foods (which they reveal as those evil carbs)
- Why Sugar Is Keeping You Fat And Unhealthy
- Here’s How Sugar Is Killing Your Insides And What You Must Do To Regain Your Health
- How Sugar Tricks Your Brain Into Wanting To Eat More (Keeping You Fat And Miserable)
And let’s face it — if you’re overweight, and in search of a better way of eating that will help you lose fat and get into better shape, these appeals to your emotions carry a lot of weight.
I won’t deny the low-carb weight loss success stories, but the low to no sugar diets are not the cause of said weight loss. It’s the controlled caloric deficit that’s responsible.
So let’s get into this.
What Is Sugar?
Sugar is the simple term for all the various forms carbohydrates.
These carbohydrates are either in unison (glucose) or bound together with other forms of carbohydrates (di or oligo-saccharide).
By the way, saccharide is the fancy name for sugar. So when you see mono, di, or oligo saccharide, it means one, two, or multiple (also called poly) sugar(s).
Here’s one thing to know before going into the nitty gritty of what carbohydrates (sugars) are: all must break down into a simpler form known as glucose, which is used by the body for fuel.
Note: if you don’t care about this, TLDR: 3 Reasons Why Sugar Isn’t Making You Fat
The Sugar Key:
Monosaccharide = one type of carbohydrate (sugar), mostly referred to as glucose (which is what is broken down and enters your bloodstream).
Disaccharide = two types of carbohydrates bound together. An example of this is the commonly known table sugar which is made up of two types of carbohydrates: glucose and fructose (also found in fruit and honey).
Oligosaccharide = many types of carbohydrates bound together. Some food examples are potatoes, rice, oats, bread, spinach, other starches, and veggies.
When breaking it all down, all carbohydrates are sugar, just in multiple forms. So sometimes people can get confused when I’m consulting them on their training and nutrition and I say “you probably need more sugar in your diet.”
I then go on to explain that when I say “sugar,” it can be an extra helping of rice or potatoes during the day, or mixing some fruit in their protein smoothie post workout. In the end, the carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose and used for fuel.
An important thing to understand before we get into how sugar is used by the body it this:
Carbohydrates are required by the body for the following reasons:
- Sugar is stored in your muscles (and liver, but more on this later) for fuel you will be using for hard training. If you’re reading this article, I will assume you’re interested in optimizing your workout plan, training performance and getting leaner. Carbohydrates can help you tremendously with both goals.
- Sugar is needed by the brain for optimal function. Your brain uses close to 20% of your total energy expenditure . So skimping on the sugar can not only cause physical, but mental performance problems.
- Sugar is protective of lean muscle tissue because it spares ingested and skeletal muscle protein from being converted to glucose to meet the body’s needs.
NOTE: some will argue that sugar is not essential (this is why I used ‘required’ above) because it can be made by the body out of protein (the body can’t make proteins).
But while this argument is indeed true, it’s referring to survival situations (when carbs are scarce, and your body begins to use ingested protein and lean tissue for glucose needs).
Now let’s tackle some misconceptions and ideas that need further reviewing so you never have to worry about those pesky, sensationalistic and fear-mongering headlines about SUGAR ever again.
Sugar Will Spike Your Insulin
While carbohydrates will spike insulin levels, so does protein. So the argument of keeping insulin down by reducing carbohydrates and eating mostly protein in place is faulty from the start.
As Brad Pilon notes in this video below, protein (regardless of the source) will cause a spike in insulin, even though the protein source might determine the rate of rise and fall of insulin levels.
The takeaway? Both carbohydrates and protein are going to spike insulin, so trying to cut out sugar altogether doesn’t make sense. And I think it goes without saying, but cutting out protein for fear of insulin spikes is not the way to go either.
Another interesting note you might not be aware of is that fructose actually has very little to hardly any impact on insulin levels. So consuming more fruit (which is not 100% fructose) can actually be a good thing if you’re trying to mitigate insulin and blood sugar spikes.
Now due to fructose never being eaten in isolation (because it’s not found this way in nature), it’s nearly impossible to avoid the insulin spike that will inevitably result from eating, in general. However, it’s been shown that eating fruit (because it contains fructose) before meals can minimize blood sugar spikes from other carbohydrates.
Isn’t Sugar Converted To Fat Immediately Because Of Insulin Spikes?
A common saying is “I can’t have sugar – it goes straight to my ass.” And while that sounds funny, it’s a legit belief held by many.
For some, sugar = automatic fat storage.
Regardless of what you may have heard about sugar being converted to fat as soon as it hits your gut, it doesn’t quite happen that way.
It’s actually a complicated process, but here’s the gist.
Sugar is broken down from the many forms into glucose (see the explanation above about the various sugar bonds).
Glucose is what your body’s cells use for energy.
If there’s not enough glucose, it can resort to using amino acids for energy (via gluconeogenesis, which is the process of your body breaking down muscles or ingested protein into glucose). Sugar (carbohydrate) is hardly ever converted to fat due to how it’s stored in the muscles and liver.
If glycogen stores are completely topped off, then something happens where the carbs are turned into fat and that process is called De Novo Lipogenesis (but this is incredibly rare in humans).
The interesting part of this is you have to eat an insane amount of carbohydrates in a short period of time for this to happen. To put some figures to it, one study suggests the maximum glycogen storage capacity for humans is 15 grams per kilogram of body weight.
For perspective, let’s take an average man or woman who weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms). When doing the math (15 x 68 = 1,020), we have a total of 1,020 grams of carbohydrates, which is equal to 4080 calories.
This is also assuming the person is completely carb-depleted, so if that were the case, anything consumed above the 1,020 grams of carbohydrates would then be converted into fatty acids. If they weren’t depleted, it would take fewer carbs to make this happen.
But who consumes this many carbohydrates in a day? No one does unless they’re actively trying to, or are a competitive athlete doing long bouts of training (think endurance athletes running or biking for hours).
Or maybe if they’re drinking soda by the case, and eating birthday cake for breakfast. And if this is you, then those carbs are probably being converted to fat. That’s a load of sugar.
3 Reasons Why Sugar Isn’t Making You Fat (And What Actually Is)
1. Carbs Are Stored For Fuel First, Converted To Fat As A Last Resort
When ingesting carbohydrates, fructose is stored in the liver, and everything else is stored in the muscles. Your muscles can store quite a lot of carbohydrates, and it’s for good reason. The body will need to utilize them as energy during intense activity from your weight training, or cardio sessions. Even thinking requires a good amount of carbohydrate.
The only time carbohydrates will be stored as fat is if you consistently eat enough to top off, and go beyond your glycogen storage capacity. Then the process of de novo lipogenesis occurs (see my explanation above, if necessary).
Fat, on the other hand, is the easiest nutrient to store in your fat cells because it’s fat. There’s no conversion process necessary. After ingestion, it will be stored in your fat cells to be burned off later during rest.
2. Our Carb To Fat Ratio Perception Is Way Off
If you ever ask someone what their favorite carb-heavy foods are, the responses are often those foods that not only contain lots of carbohydrates but also lots of fat.
Think of the following foods:
- ice cream
- candy bars
When examining everything above, they all contain a big dose of fat per serving. One donut can easily contain over 20 grams of fat (which is equal to half the daily intake of some individuals). I had three quarters of a deep dish pizza recently that put me at 150 grams of fat in that one meal alone.
Ice cream contains a lot of sugar and milk fat from the cream. And most pasta dishes are loaded with olive oil and/or creamy sauces.
So the idea of high carb foods are most often containing lots of fat, which creates the ultimate situation for fat storage (more on this at the end).
3. It’s Easier To Overeat On Fat And Carbs Together Than One Or The Other In Unison
When those snarky headlines suggest that sugar is addictive, it’s blatantly misleading. Why? Because sugar in unison is not very appetizing.
When’s the last time you grabbed a spoon and a bag of sugar and sat in front of the TV?
Probably never. Because that would be disgusting. The sugar by itself is too sweet. The same goes for fat. When’s the last time you ate coconut oil out of the jar, or drank olive oil with dinner?
Probably never because this stuff ain’t that tasty in by itself.
But when you combine sugar and fat together, it creates the most palatable food ever.
It’s why french fries taste so good. They’re fried in oil and covered in salt.
It’s what makes cookies and pie easy to overeat on. They’re so dense with butter and loaded simple sugar.
Donuts are loaded with fat, and we all love a good donut.
It’s why snack foods are hard to limit yourself on. When I was a kid, I would eat the entire bag of Doritos in one sitting, and still be hungry for more.
Most snack food is engineered to be addictive, but it’s not the fat or sugar alone — it’s the combination.
So it’s not actually the carbs or the fat to blame for making us fat. It’s the amount we eat, and how easy it is to overeat on these types of foods.
The Details Of Fat Storage
We store body fat by overeating consistently, but some foods are easier to overeat than others. In the end, an excess of energy (calories) is what will cause fat gain.
All the fat we consume is broken down and stored. There’s no way to get around this. The fat will enter our mouths, get broken down in our intestines, enter our blood, and be stored in our fat cells.
The trick as to whether or not you gain fat and/or body weight is your energy balance. If you’re in a deficit, you’re not going to gain any weight because the fat you eat, and the fat on your body will be burned as energy.
If you’re in a caloric excess, the extra fat you ingest can be stored on your body. This is why many bodybuilders and athletes prefer a higher carbohydrate diet than a higher fat diet because the excess carbohydrates can be stored in the muscles and liver, and it’s harder for the body to convert them into fat.
A higher fat intake on a hypercaloric (excess of energy) diet will likely lead to a higher rate of fat gain because it’s so easily stored over carbohydrates and protein.
Protein is rarely stored as fat because it has to be broken down to repair the muscles and other tissues. If you’re weight training regularly, any excess protein will go toward that recovery.
If there’s a huge excess, then protein will be converted to carbohydrates (gluconeogenesis) in the case your body needs more sugar.
And the only way protein would get stored as fat is if you’re already overeating on carbs, and as a result of de novo lipogenesis, they’ll be converted to fat (but remember, this is highly unlikely if you’re training and not over consuming loads of carbs from sugary drinks or junk food).
How Carbs Actually Make Us Fat
While they don’t directly cause fat gain, when lots of sugar is coupled with lots of fat, the likelihood of you storing fat on your body goes up a good amount.
Not by the combination of the macros, but because it can make for some very dense food choices that will easily put you into a calorie surplus.
This is why foods like pizza, hot wings and beer, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and gravy, and Cap’n Crunch-covered donuts can seemingly be the carb-heavy foods that cause fat gain. But remember — it’s not the carbs, it’s the excess fat that goes along with them making your waistline expand.
A Life Without Comfort Food?
Should you forgo these tasty foods forever? Not a chance.
This is why I have my clients doing high-calorie days, eating whatever they’d like to help restore glycogen lost from heavy training, and to restore sanity from a moderately low-fat diet.
And it’s how Stephanie Lost 13 Pounds And Changed Her Body.
Did this article resonate with you? Let me know what you thought in the comments.
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 Heacock PM, Hertzler SR, Wolf BW. Fructose prefeeding reduces the glycemic response to a high-glycemic index, starchy food in humans. J Nutr. 2002;132(9):2601-4.