Over the past several years, sugar has developed a pretty terrible reputation – especially in among athletes and bodybuilders. But, the truth is that the oft-vilified nutrient could be useful when it's used properly. Taken at the right time, a little bit of sugar can stimulate your muscle growth.
Does Sugar Affect Muscle Growth?
Sugar hasn’t had a very good time over the past couple of decades. Generally, the nutrient is seen as more of guilty pleasure, zealously avoided by athletes and bodybuilders. The reality, though, is that this is a major over-simplification.
In fact, the right sugars, eaten at the right times could help you build more lean mass. Of course, things could go the other way; you could add fat, instead. So, how can you find the balance? How does sugar affect muscle growth? More specifically, how can you use sugar to help you reach your goals?
Before we can understand how sugar impacts your body and how you can use it strategically, it's vital that we're clear on precisely what we're talking about. All too often, the term “sugar” gets thrown around to refer to several different things.
Generally, when people use that word, what they're really referring to is sucrose – common table sugar, usually extracted from sugar cane or beets. While all plants contain small amounts of sucrose, as a byproduct of photosynthesis, it's generally in concentrations that are too small to be isolated economically.
But then there are other types of sugar, each of which come from different sources and have slightly different uses in your body. Here's a (very) brief rundown of the various types of sugar, including sucrose, and common sources:
- Fructose: Fruits and honey
- Galactose: Milk and dairy
- Glucose: Honey, fruits and vegetables
- Lactose: Milk and dairy; made from glucose and galactose
- Maltose: Barley
- Sucrose: All plants; made up of glucose and fructose
- Xylose: Wood or straw
These sugars fall under the broader category of carbohydrates and are, to varying degrees and at different speeds, converted into glucose for fuel once they enter your body. Precisely how each of these sugars act within your body is a much bigger topic than we have time for here, though. Let's just say that glucose and sucrose are rapidly absorbed while the others tend to be a little slower.
Your Body on Sugar
But why does any of that matter? Because to understand how sugar impacts muscle growth, you need to understand exactly what sugar is. And, as we've seen, “sugar” can mean a bunch of different things.
Regardless of the exactly form and source, though, any sugar that enters your body causes a rise in the hormone insulin. This chemical messenger tells your cells that they need to absorb the nutrients that are currently present in your blood stream – whether those nutrients are carbs, proteins or fats. The severity of the insulin spike depends on how quickly the sugar is broken down. Because it can drive nutrients where they need to be, insulin could encourage all sorts of changes to your body composition.
Right, so, all that background information is meant to explain this: an insulin spike after your workout will help your muscles grow. This is accomplished by driving both carbs for fuel and protein for recovery to the damaged muscle fiber. And that insulin spike is triggered by eating sugar – especially faster sugars.
Be aware, though, that for protein to reach your muscles it must be in your system. Your post-workout snack, then, needs to include both simple sugars and protein. Used at other times, though, this same dietary approach could make you gain body fat instead. Remember, insulin is a storage hormone so anything that isn't immediately needed will be stored – often as body fat.