People tend to be pretty rough on sugar, blaming it for everything from cancer to diabetes and obesity.
Thanks to this negative public image, the classic white sweetener isn't generally seen as anything even approaching a “health food.” But, the truth is that sugar can be a useful tool in your fitness pursuits – if you use it properly.
To understand how to do that, though, we first need to be clear about exactly what sugar is and how it impacts your body.
From there, we can answer the question that often leads to some heated debates in fitness circles: should you have sugar after a workout?
What We're Talking About
A big part of the animosity and confusion surrounding sugar has to do with that term, which is often used in a frustratingly haphazard way.
In truth, “sugar” is a general term for a group of carbohydrates that have similar chemical structures and functions within your body. This means that lots of foods – including vegetables, fruits and grains – contain sugar.
We'll talk more about it later, but for now let's just say that these sugars are classified by the speed at which your body absorbs and uses them. But, that's not usually what people mean when they say “sugar.”
Instead, they're most likely referring to common table sugar, more correctly called sucrose. For the purposes of this article, however, “sugar” will refer to all the chemicals that fit under that umbrella term.
What It Does
Regardless where it comes from or its exact chemical structure, though, all sugars have the same function within your body: to provide fuel.
As an easily absorbed source of carbohydrates, your primary fuel, sugars are quickly put to work. To get that sugar from your diet where it needs to be, your body releases the hormone insulin which tells your cells that it's time to gobble up all that fuel.
Interestingly – and of vital importance for a discussion on post-workout nutrition – insulin also triggers the transport and absorption of other nutrients, including protein.
But sugars that are broken down quickly, spoken of as having a high glycemic index, cause rapid and dramatic changes in your blood sugar levels.
If this cycle is frequently repeated over the long-term, obesity, diabetes and heart disease can all result.
When it comes to sugar in sports nutrition, then, balance is needed. Those carbohydrates are necessary to fuel your workouts and restore your energy levels afterward.
A well-timed and controlled insulin response can make sure that dietary proteins quickly make their way to your muscles, where they can be used to start the recovery and growth process.
For about 30-45 minutes after your workout, your body resides in a state called “heightened insulin sensitivity” in which the named hormone is rushing around looking for carbs and protein. So, any carbohydrates that it finds are immediately burned for fuel, rather than being stored.
Because of this increased sensitivity, there's a particular interest in high glycemic index sugars – those that you would typically avoid. Really, then, this would be the ideal time to indulge in some sugary treats that you deny yourself throughout a regular day.
Of course, you don't have to eat sugar after a workout. In fact, diabetics should still abstain. But, if your goals – namely an increase in mass or strength – allow for it, a little sugar after a workout could give you a helpful boost.