By Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D.
According to its publicist, sugar is a health food. After all, it contains zero fat, provides instant energy, and makes almost any food taste better. But these attributes are all trumped by a physiological fact: Sugar is not a weight loss food. That may seem like a given, but by understanding why it makes you fat, you can minimize sugar's harmful effects and create a leaner, healthier body.
Eating sugar is like flipping a switch that tells your body to store fat. And sugar is everywhere—not just in soda, candy, and desserts. It's disguised in refined carbohydrates like bread, rice, and pasta, and even in beer and milk. Your body can't tell the difference—it quickly digests and absorbs all these sugars into your bloodstream as glucose.
This means most men eat the equivalent of a high-sugar diet—even if they've sworn off sweets. Case in point: During digestion, one slice of white bread is converted into the same amount of glucose as 4 tablespoons of sugar.
Here's what happens: Every time you eat sugar, your blood-glucose level rises quickly. In turn, this stimulates the release of insulin, a powerful hormone that signals your body to store fat. There's also a dose response: The more sugar you down at any one time—resulting in a greater rise in blood glucose and, consequently, in insulin—the longer you stay in fat-storage mode.
Of course, you may not be ready to give up sandwiches, fried rice, and spaghetti. But use the cutting-edge strategies that follow and you can slow the rate at which sugar is absorbed into your bloodstream.
The payoff: You'll diminish the impact any food has on your glucose levels—and on your body's ability to burn fat. Consider it nutritional damage control. And the benefits extend beyond the physiology of fat metabolism. Research shows that keeping blood-glucose levels in check decreases appetite and reduces the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Fortunately, that's not just industry marketing hype; it's a scientific reality.
Skip the Granola Bar
Ohio State University scientists recently studied the effects of three popular energy bars containing varying amounts of carbohydrates—low, moderate, and high—on blood glucose in 20 people. Compared with the effects of white bread, blood-glucose levels were 71 percent lower after an Atkins Advantage Bar, 50 percent lower after a Balance Bar, and just 4 percent lower after a PowerBar.
If you want a convenient snack, avoid most breakfast, cereal, and "performance" bars—they're full of sugar. Instead, choose a product like Atkins Advantage, which contains just 21 grams (g) of carbohydrates.
Douse Your Salad with Vinaigrette
In a 2005 study, Swedish researchers observed that when people consumed 2 tablespoons of vinegar with three slices of white bread, their blood glucose was 23 percent lower than when they ate white bread only; they also felt more full. Credit acetic acid, a primary component of vinegar, dressings, and pickled products.
The advice: Order extra pickles on sandwiches and begin any high-carbohydrate meal with a side salad that's mixed with a vinegar-based dressing, such as balsamic vinaigrette or Italian. Or make your own vinegar-and-oil dressing by slowly whisking 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a bowl containing 2 tablespoons of red or white vinegar.
Pop a Fiber Pill
Researchers in Taiwan found that taking 1.2 g glucomannan—a soluble fiber made from the Japanese konjac root—30 minutes before eating white toast led to a 28 percent reduction in blood glucose 2 hours afterward, compared with having none of the fiber supplement.
Better yet, when people took that same amount of glucomannan before each meal three times a day, they reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol by 21 percent in just 4 weeks. Look for Nature's Way glucomannan: One serving contains 2 g of the fiber, a safe and effective amount to take 15 to 30 minutes before any meal.
Eat Java-Friendly Foods
Canadian researchers discovered that men who downed the caffeine equivalent of 1 to 2 cups of coffee an hour before a high-sugar meal experienced 16 percent higher levels of blood glucose afterward, compared with when they consumed a caffeine-free placebo.
An important point: When it's not paired with sugar, caffeine increases the rate at which your body burns fat. So, whenever possible, drink the coffee but skip the doughnut, muffin, or bagel. Opt for breakfast foods like eggs and fruit instead; they have little or no effect on blood glucose.
Add Some Metal to Your Diet
In a recent study, Swiss scientists gave men a single 400 microgram (mcg) dose of chromium picolinate before a high-carbohydrate meal. Subsequently, the men's blood-glucose levels were 23 percent lower than when they ate the same meal without the supplement.
Try it yourself, but make sure the mineral name includes "picolinate"; the compound is the form of chromium that your body can most readily use. Don't double your dose; the researchers found that 800 mcg was no more effective than 400.
Pump Iron in the Morning
Scientists at Syracuse University recently found that a single weight-training session reduces the effect of a high-sugar meal on blood glucose by 15 percent for more than 12 hours after a workout.
The likely reason: Exercise drains your muscles' fuel reserves—stored glucose known as glycogen. To ensure that you have plenty of energy for your next workout, your body immediately shuttles any available glucose to your muscles, where it's packed away for future use—helping to reduce blood-glucose levels. So until glycogen levels are replenished, which can take several hours, high-sugar foods aren't as detrimental. Because aerobic exercise calls on glycogen, too, you can expect a similar effect from your cardio session.
Try a Natural Supplement
When University of Scranton researchers gave study participants 1,500 milligrams of Phaseolus vulgaris extract (derived from white kidney beans) before a high-sugar meal, the test subjects' blood-glucose levels were 57 percent lower 2 hours later, compared with when they consumed a placebo.
The mechanism? Phaseolus vulgaris inhibits the enzyme that breaks down starchy carbohydrates—any type of grain or potato—in your gut. The product tested in the study was Phase 2 Starch Blocker.