You can’t out-train a bad diet, so one of the questions I’ve been getting a lot lately is, “what kind of sweetener should I be using? Sucanat, coconut sugar, agave nectar … if it has a low glycemic index that’s good right?” Sugar is one of the most fattening foods there is. It’s fattening because of what it does to your metabolism, appetite and brain. Whatever name we’re using — agave nectar, corn syrup, coconut sugar, sucanat, honey, fruit juice concentrate — it’s all sugar. I’ll tell you why it’s bad for you, what’s the worst stuff, and what you should use.
Why is sugar bad?
For metabolic damage, the business end of sugar is fructose. What we call table sugar (sucrose) is a 50/50 mix of fructose and glucose. The fructose half of table sugar doesn’t go into your bloodstream like the glucose part does, but instead travels straight to your liver. This is where the fun starts.
In your liver, the fructose can be a good thing under the right conditions: a reasonable serving size, and an empty liver (the carbs stored in your liver are low from intense exercise, a low carb diet and/or fasting). If you have an office job and eat like most Americans, then the right conditions almost never exist. When you eat sugar on top of a full liver your body starts to make new fat (called de novo lipogenesis). Some of this new fat gets deposited in your liver (this is how you get non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), and then some of this new fat gets circulated around your body to be stored in your problem areas.
To make things worse, large quantities of fructose (or anything with fructose) seem to damage your body’s ability to handle carbohydrates. That is eating sweets today helps you get fatter today and makes it easier to get even fatter from the same amount of food in the future.
Fructose is like a “phantom calorie.” Your brain has a very good, built-in calorie counting system. It works when we’re healthy and eat real food. Fructose never gets registered as calories in by your brain, so we can eat sweets and we don’t get as full as we should, so we end up too hungry and keep eating long after we should’ve stopped.
If you give a rat a choice between cocaine, heroin and sweet water, those rats will pick the sweet water more than 90 percent of the time. Sweet stuff might be more addictive than the most addictive illegal drugs known to man.
What about low glycemic?
Low glycemic sounds like it’d be a good thing, but when it comes to sweeteners it’s usually just the opposite. Remember that fructose is the “bad” part of sugar, and fructose goes to your liver not your bloodstream, so fructose has a very low glycemic index. Sounds good, but is usually even worse.
What to use?
We don’t really have enough space to really get into it, but, in general, artificial sweeteners are probably not that good for you. Also, whenever you use one that is in a powdered form you’re actually eating refined carbohydrates, which are is what you wanted to avoid in the first place. Artificial sweeteners are so sweet that they need to be “cut” with something, and that something is usually maltodextrin — so a packet of sucralose has just as many refined carbs as a packet of sugar.
For a balance of taste and health (minimal fructose and things that are probably pretty safe) your best bet would be either a stevia and erythritol blend (sold as Z-sweet or Truvia), or A product called Just Like Sugar. The second product is based on chicory root, and tastes great but does not agree with everyone’s digestive system — it can make some people (including me) gassy.
In the end you want to use a two-prong approach:
1. Use a better sweetener, such as the ones listed above.
2. Use less. You don’t need everything you eat to be sweet. The more you sweeten your drinks and food the more sweet stuff you will want, and this will work against you in the long run.
Josef Brandenburg is a Washington, D.C.-area certified fitness expert with 14 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book Results Fitness. In 2004, he started The Body You Want personal training fitness program, which specializes in weight loss and body transformations for busy people. Read more about The Body You Want at www.josefbrandenburg.com/.
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