Sugar: What Kinds to Eat and When

Learn which sugars are good to your body, and when and how to take them.

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It's been two years since Russ started to get his diet in shape. Slowly but surely he cut out the late-night pizzas, the morning doughnuts and the evening drive-thru. It wasn't easy, but the weight came flying off . to a point. Then, no matter how miserly he became toward fat grams, he still couldn't get that lean, chiseled look. As he cracked his third Mountain Dew of the day-congratulating himself because it's fat-free-he began to think that he would never get the six-pack of his dreams.

Unless you've got a Ph.D. in biochemistry, you're probably exhausted from the endless debate surrounding sugar. And if your info has come largely from television, you're hopelessly confused. Treading that fine white line demands some balance. If you eat too little, you don't have the energy to work out; too much, and you get fat. It's really a simple matter of figuring out what kinds of sugar to eat and when, in order to lose weight, build muscle and protect your health.

The Science of Sweet
Okay, kids, sit down and listen closely. All sugars are carbohydrates, known as "simple" carbs, since they're composed of just one sugar molecule. The label on a can of Pepsi reads 41 grams of carbs and 41 grams of sugar. This means that every single carbohydrate comes from sugar. The label on a package of plain oatmeal will read 18 grams of carbs and only one gram of sugar. Almost all of the carbs in oatmeal are made up of long chains of sugar molecules called "complex" carbs. Oatmeal, along with sweet potatoes, wheat breads, rice and corn, is a complex carb, also known as a starch.

In this age of convenience foods, the terms complex and simple are a bit outdated. For the purpose of losing fat and building muscle, it's smarter to look at carbs as either "unrefined" or "processed." The former refers to whole foods that contain sugar, such as fruits, vegetables, juices, grains and legumes, and that still hold their natural water, fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. Processed foods include white bread, soda, candy, crackers, cookies and just about any commercial product labeled "fat-free." These have been stripped of their wholesome attributes and are dense with nothing but empty calories. For instance, one gram of a cracker will contain four calories, but one gram of an orange contains about 0.2 calories, because the bulk of its weight is water and fiber.

The Glycemic Index
The glycemic index rates how quickly certain foods turn into glucose (a form of sugar) in the bloodstream, and is a valuable tool when trying to control sugar intake and limit its effect on you. While high-glycemic-index foods can cause a rapid jump in blood sugar, followed by a massive crash, low-glycemic-index foods increase blood sugar slowly, providing constant and stable energy levels over a considerable period of time. Several factors contribute to a low rating, such as the presence of protein, fiber and fat. Pure processed sugars garner the highest scores, with the most highly processed foods topping the list. For instance, out of a possible 100, instant rice earns a 90 while fibrous, vitamin-rich brown rice gets a 55.

Recent studies by the Harvard School of Public Health show that diets loaded with high-GI foods lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and obesity. In fact, the World Health Organization is spearheading a movement to include GI ratings on food labels, and several products in Australia already bear the grade. For an extensive rundown of the glycemic index, go to www.mensfitness.com/glycemic.

The Dreaded Insulin Dump
Although sugar is lower in total calories per gram than fat, it contributes mightily to a fatty frame. "In our society, sugar is consumed in excessive amounts through unhealthy foods, and it increases total calories, leading to weight gain," says Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and president of Simply Fit Inc. This effect is largely due to a hormone called insulin.

The more highly processed sugar you eat, the greater the release of insulin from the pancreas. That's because the main role of insulin is to return blood-sugar levels to normal. However, when blood-sugar levels jump violently-which is what happens when you eat high-GI foods-your body pumps a massive amount of insulin into the bloodstream. This causes an overshoot, making blood-sugar levels bottom out, which triggers appetite, leading to a vicious cycle of overeating. In fact, sugar is often compared to a drug rather than a nutrient in the way it can leave you craving more instead of leaving you satisfied.

Overeating isn't the only danger. Some doctors, including Walter Willet, M.D., chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, believe that years of eating processed food and experiencing the constant blasts of insulin can actually exhaust your pancreas' ability to produce insulin, putting you at risk for diabetes. Another condition, known as insulin resistance, can also develop, in which your body is so accustomed to insulin surges, the hormone loses its power to reduce levels of blood sugar. Recent research published in the British Medical Journal shows that men with elevated blood-sugar levels have a higher mortality rate from cardiovascular disease.

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