Experiment Update: No Added Sugar – OK, Why Am I Doing This?

bikerumor-experiment-no-added-sugar-small

It’s been 24 days of eating and drinking nothing with any added sugar (save for bread and a little ketchup, as explained in Part 2).  Many of you have questioned why.  Why would someone who’s active and fit worry about cutting out extra sugar from their diet?

The short answer is, because I want to be as awesome as possible.  Like most athletes, I’ve developed a sense of quasi-invincibility, thinking that all this exercise is improving my body and leading to a longer, better life.  Like many of you, the longer I’ve ridden, the more keenly aware I’ve become of how nutrition affects performance.  For me, that also led to an increased interest in nutrition for overall better health.

I used to think that because I rode hard or hit the gym, I could eat whatever I wanted in quantities that happily distressed my gait upon exiting dollar-taco-Tuesdays. But, the more I’ve read, the more I’ve started altering my diet to improve my health, and sugar’s been on my mind for quite some time.

Now, I’m not diabetic.  In fact, according to the blood work done for a recent life insurance policy, I’m not even anywhere near pre-diabetic.  In fact, I’m in pretty darn good health overall.  So why cut out added sugar if things seem to be going swell?

There are three main reasons why, and they may just convince you to cut a lot of sugar from your diet, too.  Fair warning: Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t do your health much good.  Here we go…

Here are three compelling reasons why cutting added, excess sugar out of your diet is a very, very good idea:

  • Adds Unnecessary Calories
  • Causes Cellular Damage
  • Leads to Generally Healthier Eating

ADDS UNNECESSARY CALORIES:

This is important for two reasons.  First, if you’re going to take in calories, they may as well contribute useful macro- and micronutrients.  Sugar and the products that have it (in many cases a lot of it) added generally lack a whole lot of nutritional value.  For those that do, like tomato-based pasta sauce, there are non-sugar added options that are easy to find.

Second, it’s become pretty well established and scientifically proven that calorie restriction increases your longevity.  My friend, we’ll call him Slade because that’s his name, used to joke that healthy living might only add 10% to your life.  Of course, that statement was scientifically baseless teenage taunting so he could feel good about eating a whole bag of Doritos in a single sitting, but let’s put that into perspective.  If you were otherwise likely to live until 80 years of age, 10% is a 16 year swing from really crappy living (10% reduction) to super ultra clean healthy living (10% gain).  A lot can happen in 16 years…great grand kids, miracles of medicine, etc.  Adjust the range to whatever you believe to be realistic and I think you’ll still find an impressive range.  Add in that your quality of life is likely to be vastly improved and, well, you get the picture…but we’re getting off topic.

Graphic from NY Times - February 14, 2010.

Back to sugar.  The New York Times recently reported that people ages 12-19 get almost 350 calories per day from sugared drinks (soda, primarily).  Since most calorie restriction programs suggest about a 15% reduction in calories consumed, cutting out sugared drinks could accomplish most of that goal for a large part of the population.  I used to drink a ton of energy drinks, and ceasing to do so instantly eliminated about 240 to 480 calories per day.  And those calories were 100% sugar.  They did nothing to fill me up, nothing to build my body and certainly nothing to improve my health.  More over, they were just additional calories padding whatever I ate…there was no trade off in food to accommodate the liquid calories.

bikerumor-no-sugar-pancakes1

My breakfasts generally consist of eggs and homemade waffles.  I’ve removed the sugar from my waffle mix, and we’ve started using sugar-free syrup (I know, artificial sweeteners?  I’m working on it…again, off topic for now). On mornings when I’m feeling particularly industrious or the kids don’t have school, I’ll make a fruit topping (see above…mixed berries boiled down to create a fruit topping.  Phone cam makes it look much less delicious than it really is!) to replace or reduce the syrup.  Eliminating the sugar from the mix and the full calorie syrup cut more than 200 calories from breakfast alone.  For the typical benchmark 2,000 calorie diet, that’s 10% right from the start.

There are sneakier added-sugar calories are hidden throughout seemingly innocuous food products.  Things like bread, lunch meat, condiments, pasta sauce, cereal, salsa, etc.  Check the labels in your pantry, I’d be surprised if many of them don’t have added sugar in some form…and more than likely, those are calorically denser while being nutritionally equal or inferior.  In other words, you’re adding calories with no benefit.

Generally speaking, added sugar is simply added calories that do nothing to improve your health or satiate hunger or thirst, leading to an overall increase in calorie intake with no added benefit.

If you’re a racer, cutting sugar should make it easier to get to race weight. For the rest of us, it’s just an easy way to keep leaner and possibly live a little longer.

bikerumor-no-sugar-glycosylation

CAUSES CELLULAR DAMAGE

If you don’t give a rat’s arse about calorie counts, here’s the reason why you’ll want to cut sugar consumption: It causes cellular damage and harms your body from the inside out.

As if the training, workouts and scrapes and bruises from the occasional wipeouts weren’t flooding your body with enough free radicals and inflammation (both of which are really, really bad), sugar just adds to the internal damage.  You might look pretty good on the outside.  Heck, I’ve maintained about 6% – 7% body fat for 20+ years, which by popular culture’s standards suggests good health.  It doesn’t hurt, but it provides very little indication of all the other things that could be wrong on the inside.

Out of sight, out of mind, the saying goes. But there’s so much more going on as a result of every little thing you consume, and sugar seems to be bad all around.

Why?

Glycosylation.  That’s when free glucose in our bloodstream attaches to protein molecules, diminishing the protein’s ability to do its job and causing inflammation.  These glucose-modified proteins are called Advanced Glycosylation End Products, appropriately nicknamed AGEs because, well, they “age” your body. Here’s how glycosylation tears you up:

  • It weakens the junction between endothelial cells in your arterial walls, increasing the likelihood of leaks and tears.  Your body repairs it with cholesterol, essentially creating plaque in your arteries. This can lead to artherosclerosis (aka: hardening of the arteries).
  • It turns the clear lens in your eye slightly cloudy, leading to cataract formation. It can also damage the blood vessels in the back of your eye leading to diabetic retinopathy, which is basically a step away from blindness.
  • Lessens collagen elasticity in your skin and joints, leading to stiffness and eventually arthritis.
  • The glycosylation of collagen also results in abnormal recoil of the elastic tissue in your lungs, making it harder to get the air in and out.
  • Inhibits the body’s ability to regulate blood pressure, leading to high BP and stressing your arteries.

Some of those would directly influence your athletic ability, and all compromise quality of life.  Unless your diabetic, some of this stuff could take 20, 30, 40 or more years to develop, but once it does, as with any long-term damage to the body, it’s a slippery slope and likely irreversible.

And in the world of competitive sports, whether you’re a Pro/Cat 1 or a beginner, even the most minute advantage can mean the difference between winning and losing.

HISTORY LESSON: In 1912, Louis Maillard discovered that the browning reaction that occurs during cooking (think of bread becoming toast) was caused by a chemical reaction between glucose and protein. Dubbed the Maillard Reaction, the end product is glycated proteins…the same as AGEs.  Cooking your meat and veggies by steaming or boiling drastically reduces the AGEs formed from the heat,

How does this affect you?  Well, if you regularly consume foods, snacks and beverages that are high in sugar, your blood glucose levels might be continually (or at least frequently) elevated, providing a steady supply of glucose to bind to protein molecules, which then bind to receptor cells (RAGEs) in various organs and systems, causing the aging and damage described above.  You don’t have to have a condition like diabetes, prediabetes or hyper- or hypoglycemia to have constant or occasional elevated blood glucose.

Well hold on here, don’t all carbs eventually turn into glucose?  So wouldn’t AGEs form regardless of whether the carbs ingested are straight sugar or whole grains?

Yes, basically all carbs break down to glucose.  And, if you ate too many carbs in any form, you’d likely end up with too much glucose floating around…but eating healthy foods in appropriate portions provides enough glucose for your body to do what it’s supposed to without flooding it.  Plus, eating complex carbs from grains, fruits and vegetables allows your body to digest and break them down as needed (to some extent…again, overeating is still going to provide a surplus).

What’s glucose supposed to do?

Good question.  Normally, proteins and glucose will bind enzymatically to form Glycoproteins and make things like mucus, collagen or help reinforce cell walls…all the things we need for our body to rebuild and function properly.  And of course, it makes good fuel when exercising.  The problem arises when glucose and protein bind nonenzymatically and create AGEs.  So, yes, you need some glucose for your body to function and perform, but you don’t need a ton of it swirling around in your bloodstream from an overload of sugar consumption.

SIDENOTE: Interestingly, vegetarians may actually have higher AGE formation because their diet generally lacks protein and is typically higher in fructose from fruits and vegetables (source).

LEADS TO GENERALLY HEALTHIER EATING

Here’s the best part.  Not only has eliminating added-sugar foods and drinks made for healthier eating, it’s also been really easy.  Aside from reading labels a little more, many of the changes are super simple.  Here’s a typical day:

Breakfast

Removing the sugar from my waffle mix?  Easy, and saves money.  Using sugar-free syrup?  Just pick a different bottle from the store shelf.

bikerumor-no-sugar-burrito

Lunch

That delicious burrito above has organic refried beans, fat-free shredded cheddar, salsa, grilled chicken and avocado..and no added sugar from any of it.  In fact, if I had to guess, there probably wasn’t more than a few grams of naturally occuring sugar combined from all ingredients.  But, it’s high in protein, fiber and nutrients and it took all of five minutes to make (I grilled a ton of chicken over the weekend).

Selecting good deli meats, breads, cheeses and other items can make healthy, low-sugar lunches pretty easy.  And drinking tea or water makes it a meal.  Now, I have to admit, I’ll occasionally mix in a couple ounces of POM or some other dark juice with my tea to sweeten it a bit, and that adds some sugar, but the overall total is still a very small fraction of what you’d get with sweet tea or soda, and there are health benefits.

bikerumor-no-sugar-granola-bars

Snack

My afternoon snacks used to vary between Nature Valley or Kashi granola bars or Costco’s Kirkland Trail Mix.  All of these are healthier than faux health products like NutriGrain bars or vending machine fare, and they do have plenty of positives, but they also all have added sugar:

  • Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey Granola Bar: 11g sugar (sugar, honey, brown sugar syrup)
  • Kashi Trail Mix Chewy Granola Bar: 6g sugar (brown rice syrup, evap cane juice crystals and syrup, honey, molasses)
  • Costco’s Kirkland Signature Trail Mix: 9g sugar (added in the M&M’s candies, plus naturally in raisins)

Inevitably, I get hungry about 2p to 3p, so I had to find something.  Think about it for a minute.  If you’re looking for a quick, healthy snack, what are you going to grab?  The options are overwhelmingly prepackaged, somewhat or heavily processed and likely contain a high amount of added sugar.  Eliminating sugar-added options, for me, basically narrowed it down to fruit and nuts.  They’re quick, easy and…wait for it…healthy.  Nevermind the “whole” or “raw” foods movement, that’s not my goal, but whole fruits and nuts are basically the simplest snacks out there with no added sugar.  Just like that, you’ve improved the quality of eating without really giving up anything in the way of flavor or convenience.  It’s almost too easy.

The other easy snack is fruit smoothies.  The total sugar content on smoothies tends to be high, but it’s not from added sugar…and here’s how to reduce it somewhat.  Put berries, banana or whatever fruit you want into a blender.  Pour juice to cover about half the fruit, finish with skim milk – or unsweetened rice or soy milk will further reduce sugar – to top of fruit, then add plain yogurt.  Blend until smooth.  Add a little protein powder and blend again if desired.  You can eliminate the juice altogether if you’re really concerned.

Granted, fruit has sugar, but the combined effect of the other ingredients, plus the fiber in the fruit itself, slows digestion and provides a solid mix of nutrients. If fruits and veggies are the only source of sugars in your diet (and you consume adequate complete proteins), chances are you’ll be just fine.

Dinner

Dinner tends to be one of the easiest.  Usually some meat and vegetables, and if everyone eats well, maybe some fruit for dessert…perhaps in pie form:

bikerumor-no-sugar-berry-pie

I made this berry pie by dumping assorted frozen berries with a little pomegranate, acai and blueberry juice into a sauce pan and boiling it down.  The crust was nothing more than butter, whole wheat flour and a bit of baking soda/powder and salt.  Find any pie recipe online and it’s pretty easy to modify.  If you get good, sweet fruit, you’d be surprised how good it is when you don’t add anything else.  This one was so good, we (about eight of us) ate most of it before I remembered to take a photo.

RECAP

In the stone age, sugar (fruit, vegetables, etc.) was in short supply, and assuming you believe in evolution (you do, right?), mankind evolved to take advantage of the rare berry bush by eating all he or she could.  Nowadays, however, the supply and demand curve is flipped.  Your body still craves sweets, falsifying the “demand” curve, but as any kid that’s ridden their BMX bike down to the local 7-Eleven will attest, all the sugar “supply” you could possibly want is only a few blocks away at any given moment.

With knowledge comes power, though.  Hopefully I’ve presented a compelling case that eliminating added sugar and reducing the amount of total sugar consumed is a pretty good idea for overall health.  Without going off on other tangents (though they’re important), there are other sources of AGEs in the body, and plenty of other things you might like to know about sugar, diabetes and other health topics.  Here are two books I’d recommend: You: Staying Young and Suicide by Sugar. If you know of some other good ones, leave a comment.

It’s worth mentioning that, by and large, the concern over sugar consumption and the societal ills it’s brought (overweight kids, type 2 diabetes, etc.) have come about only recently…since the introduction of refined sugar into mainstream human diets.  Not too many generations ago, sugar was consumed only in whole foods like fruits, vegetables and in juices.  So, while you don’t want to sip on juice all day long, anecdotally (and in my opinion based on my own reading and research) you could consume fruit, vegetables and juice in reasonable amounts without fear, just spread the portions throughout the day and make sure your diet also contains slower digesting foods like grains and, if you like, meats.

THAT’S ALL WELL AND GOOD, BUT WHAT ABOUT SUGAR IN SPORTS AND RECOVERY DRINKS, GELS?  HOW DOES THAT AFFECT ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE?

Yep, that’s the 800 lb gorilla in the room isn’t it?  Heck, you’d think you’d want all the glucose you could get roaming around your bloodstream before and during a race, right?  And what better way to do that than consume sports drinks and gels with sucrose and glucose, right?

That’s a big topic, and we’ll cover that in great detail in Part 4.  Coming soon to a Bikerumor near you…

Comments

jerm - 02/25/10 - 10:28am

Tyler – Next it is time to try the NO beer month!!!

monster - 02/25/10 - 11:08am

I’m still following this with great interest. In general, it looks like you can avoid the bulk of the added sugar in a typical diet simply by avoiding “sweet” drinks and preparing food from scratch. In a sense, if you eliminate “label reading” from your diet, added sugar won’t be a problem. “Real” food doesn’t come with Nutritional Information or ingredients lists!

Kristibee - 02/25/10 - 11:36am

Ok, jerm, that’s just not happening!

Amelia - 02/26/10 - 9:51am

My fiance and I are trying to do this along with you and we have found that Ezekiel products are great. They make pasta, bread, english muffins, etc. Their products are flourless and are made from sprouted grains. We are glad we decided to go sugar free along with you, its been a challenge but a good experience as well.
Thanks and best of luck!

Nutrition « Matt Saling - 03/02/10 - 10:31am

[...] I am really impressed with the guy over at bikerumor.com and his no added sugar experiment for one month (looking forward to reading the results), and would love to try something like that, but I just [...]

[...] Experiment Update: No Added Sugar – OK, Why Am I Doing This? [...]

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