By Steve Edwards

Welcome to part VI of our very, very basic nutrition class. We've now taken a basic look at what we should eat, marketing slogans to be wary of, and how to read food labels. Today we'll look at sugar and fake sugar, and then try to come up with a reasonable strategy to deal with our sweet teeth.


Remember, this class is the ultra basics, so instead of using words like saccharide and galactose, let's just say that sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrates. It's sweet, yummy, and easy to crave. In nature, it's found in plants. As you recall from Part I, plants have fiber, and this minimizes sugar's impact on your system by causing it to be digested slowly. Carbohydrates, whether from potatoes, lentils, or bananas, all break down into sugars in your body, and you use these sugars as fuel when you do stuff. So, if done right, eating carbohydrates is a good thing, especially when you're active.

Refined sugar, the white grainy stuff you'll find in gummy bears, chocolate, Coke, and most desserts, is sugar minus the fiber that surrounds it in nature. What you're left with is a sweet but highly caloric food that your body absorbs very rapidly, causing a "sugar rush." This "rush" is a temporary imbalance in your system that your body tries to regulate—a spike of energy followed by a lull.

But your body hates the lull, so to bring you back up, it'll crave, you guessed it, more sugar. It's an ugly cycle, considering refined sugar's only nutritional value is similar to a nitrous injection in a race car—a quick burst of energy that burns right out. This might be a good thing if you're in a drag race (or, in human terms, if you need an extra burst of energy during a workout), but it's a bad thing any other time because, if you don't put that excess sugar to use, it gets stored as fat.

Bottom line: Refined sugar is okay for sports performance (while you are skiing, bicycling, running, and so on), but it's bad at all other times. Unfortunately, we tend to want it at all other times. Therefore, straight sugar consumption should be limited.

Now you're probably wondering, "So the best time to eat gummy bears would be during a marathon instead of at night in front of the TV?" The answer is yes, absolutely.

And now you're probably thinking, "But I want dessert after dinner!" Right, we all do. Something sweet after a meal is pretty darn ingrained in our society.

Artificial Sweeteners

I'm not going to do a breakdown of the artificial sweeteners on the market—because we already have. I recommend that you read "Sweet Nothing," which will only take you a couple of minutes. Essentially, there are a bunch of different artificial sweeteners to choose from. Most are made of various chemical reactions that your taste buds think are sweet but aren't used by your body and have zero calories.

There are also some, called sugar alcohols, which have fewer calories than regular sugar because they've been combined with an artificial fiber that you can't digest. These have "-tol" at the end of their names, like "xylitol."

One, Stevia, or "sweet leaf," is natural. It's basically a, well, sweet leaf that you can chew on or that we can grind into a powder, like sugar. Now you might be thinking, "This all sounds great! What's the catch?"

The catch is that a lot of recent science is showing us that calories might not be the only reason we're fat. In fact, a handful of studies cited in "Sweet Nothing" concluded that those using artificial sweetener regularly tended to be more obese than those who used regular sugar.

Then there's the little fact that sweeteners may not be safe. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some, but given their track record (Vioxx, etc.), we can easily—and should—be a bit skeptical. With a cursory search of the Internet, you can find both pro and con studies for each alternative sweetener. The FDA is highly influenced by lobbyists and does not accept all viable studies, meaning that you might want more than FDA approval before blindly trusting what you put into your body.

So let's use some logic to try to assess how best to choose a sweetener. By adding two and two together, we should be able stack the odds in our favor.
  • Time. Saccharin is the most maligned of this bunch, yet it's been around for more than 100 years and is still on the market. Sure, there is some negative research out there, but it can't be that bad! A lot of people consume a lot of different artificial sweeteners. If people were dropping like flies, we'd probably hear about it. In fact, sweet leaf has been used for thousands of years. FDA approval or not, that's what I call time-tested.
  • Research. If one of these sweeteners were so good, why would other people keep trying to come up with better ones? From this fact alone, we know that at least some of those negative findings must have an inkling of merit.
  • Money. The influence of big business can keep need-to-know information from the public (again, Vioxx, etc.). Most sweeteners have become American staples, such as aspartame in diet soda.
  • Artificial or natural? "Artificial" sounds bad and "natural" sounds good. But just because something is natural does not mean it's good. Tobacco and opium are natural. So, the claim that Stevia is good because "it's natural" bears little relevance. Many very beneficial drugs are artificial. However, you generally don't want to take them habitually, which is how some people use artificial sweeteners. Artificial doesn't mean bad, but it should mean caution.
  • Anecdotal. I'm going to share two quick stories:

    First, my sister is a sweet leaf proponent. It's time-honored and natural but lacks FDA approval. She lobbied Starbucks for a natural alternative to Splenda (chlorinated sugar). She got a long line of positive responses up the chain of command until, finally, they stopped returning her calls. A short time later, her local market (a chain that she used as an example for Starbucks) was forced to stop offering sweet leaf with their coffee and only sell it as a "supplement." Coincidence or a blatant case of big business (Starbucks and/or the folks who bring you Splenda) using strong-arm tactics against someone who truly cares about your health? In the wake of the FDA scandal, it's hard not to at least harbor a little suspicion.

    Next is a female athlete whom I trained; she could not lose weight, despite being in great shape and eating a strict diet. Her vice was about 100 ounces of no-cal soft drinks per day. She would eye double Big Gulps like a junky does crack. When we were able to get her off the stuff—she even drank some sugared soft drinks to do so—she lost 15 pounds. This example is now being echoed with science. Two large-scale studies spanning many years have shown a link between artificial sweeteners and obesity.

Bottom line: There is no hard evidence that any one sweetener is better than the others. Most likely the stuff won't kill you, at least not quickly. But given that we also know it's not 100 percent safe, it would seem wise to limit your consumption as much as possible.

So now that we understand that sugar should be limited, let's look at some ways to do it.

5 Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

So what's a dessert-loving health seeker to do? Here are my five favorite ways to cut your sugar consumption without ruining all of your fun:
  1. Portion control. I recently saw a sign in a Denny's window saying, "Remember, an apple a day." The sign was of an apple surrounded by about 2,000 calories of sugar and fat. Our society has gone crazy for "bigger is better." After dinner, your body is not hungry. You don't need 2,000 extra calories. You don't need 200! If you savor a square of chocolate or a tablespoon of Ben & Jerry's slowly, it will curb your cravings without a noticeable effect on your diet.
  2. Don't snack on artificial sweeteners. Gum is probably the worst snack because it creates a stimulus-response action that causes you to crave sweet stuff constantly.
  3. Add some fruit to your sugar or artificial sweetener. Fruit is both sweet and good for you. However, I realize an apple might not be enough all by itself to satiate your sweet tooth. But you can dress up fruit with a very small amount of a "real" dessert and make it pretty darn decadent.
  4. Make sure you have some complex carbs in your diet. This sounds boring, but complex carbs, like whole grains, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, 'n' stuff, all slowly break down into blood sugar. If your blood sugar is steady, you won't crave sugar. You might still habitually crave it, but that's a ton better than a sugar-crash craving, which will likely lead to bingeing.
  5. The protein powder trick. Most protein powders have a small amount of sugar and a touch of artificial sweetener, and are 90 percent protein. If you can find one you like (our Whey Protein Powder is fantastic, ahem, ahem), you might be able to curb your cravings with a high-protein snack. Chalene Johnson, the creator of Turbo Jam®, uses chocolate protein powder as a base for pudding, and Beachbody® advice staff member, Denis Faye, sprinkles it on cereal. If you get creative, the possibilities may be endless.