We all know sugar tastes good and it’s hard to stop at just a small sample of anything deliciously sweet. But are you addicted? It’s certainly possible, as sugar activates opiate receptors in your brain to make you feel good emotionally, even if only in the short term. But once the sugar high wears off, you can be headed for an energy crash, headaches and fluctuating hormones which becomes a vicious cycle as you reach for the next quick ‘pick me up’. There are clear benefits of quitting sugar on performance for athletes, so it’s time to get real and look at what happens to your body when you give sugar the flick for good.
Sugar and inflammation
A 2014 study demonstrated a direct link between sugar and inflammation. The study showed that people who reduced their intake of sugary drinks had lowered inflammatory markers in their blood. This meant that their risk of chronic disease improved as their sugar intake decreased. (1)
Sugar causes inflammation by producing free fatty acids in the liver and as the body digests them, they trigger an inflammatory process.
Athletes and inflammation
Chronic inflammation is the enemy of athletes aiming to improve their performance. It can cause fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, weight gain and pain. By reducing inflammation in the body, you will train better and recover more quickly too and thereby benefit from all the training!
Much of our training will stimulate inflammation, so by reducing processed sugars in our diet we can reduce unnecessary inflammation through nutrition.
All sugars aren’t equal
Sugar in fruit is fructose, and it comes packaged up with nutrients and fibre, and without additives, colours, preservatives, and other nasties. When you eat fruit, you get energy from the fructose plus all the other goodies your body needs daily.
Processed sugar which is added to foods is devoid of these nutrients and just gives you extra calories without any real nutritional value. This is the type you need to avoid to minimise inflammation.
Withdrawal is real
Even if you’re not having a supersize coke every day, sugar sneaks into many processed foods like sauces, muesli bars and yoghurts. If you are relying on these foods to get through your day, then cutting them back could hit you hard.
It’s possible to experience headaches, exhaustion, irritability, and brain fog, all of which make it harder to stay the course.
Your mood could get better before it gets worse
Sugar releases the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, so without these your mood suffers and so can your training in the short term.
In can take a week or so for you to start feeling energised and more vibrant once you cut back processed sugars from your diet.
Your skin will benefit
If you are eating a lot of processed sugar the resultant insulin spikes can trigger inflammation in the skin which can cause breakouts, premature wrinkling, sagging and redness.
After a period of reduced sugar intake, your skin can bounce back with strengthened elastin and collagen.
Your sleep will improve
High amounts of sugar can reduce your deep, restorative slow wave sleep and REM sleep. By reducing sugar, you will reduce the number of times you wake overnight which improves your sleep quality overall.
Alcohol can also be a sleep-stealer, so instead try a Hot Chocolate with added magnesium for a restorative sleep.
Lose the sugar, lose the kilos
Let’s be clear, cutting sugar alone won’t make you lose weight, but it can help. By reducing calories and taking the strain off your body as it tries to balance glucose levels, your fat stores can also start to decline.
The key to success here is not just cutting back sugar but including adequate protein plus a variety of nutrient dense vegetables and healthy fats.
How much sugar is enough?
The World Health Organization recommends having no more than 6 to 9 teaspoons of sugar a day. As athletes, we are always looking to improve our performance and too often the focus is on training harder and having the latest, greatest equipment.
By reducing sugar and inflammation and improving the nutritional value of our daily food, we regularly see athletes take a big step up in performance.
- Decreased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages improved selected biomarkers of chronic disease risk among US adults: 1999 to 2010; PubMed Central