Sugar has been touted by the public and mainstream media as the fat-storing devil. In our efforts to lose weight, many of us attempt to remove all sugar from our diets. In fact, most popular weight-loss plans remove sugar for at least a period of time.


There is something to the benefits of limiting sugar consumption for weight loss. The health benefits of removing processed sugars from the diet go even further. However, is there a time when consuming sugar may actually be good for us?


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The sugar debate rages on, but recent research puts a positive spin on this common dietary additive.


Studying Sugar

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in May of 2015 suggested that sugar may have an ability to minimize our stress response. Researchers took nineteen women aged eighteen to forty with BMIs ranging from twenty to 34. They were subdivided into groups - one group was given a sugar substitute (aspartame) and the other was given sugar in the form of sucrose. Both were given these doses three times per day for two weeks.


Naltrexone was administered by the participants at home to block any opioid response to the sugar so as to further see the stress response after sugar consumption. MRIs were given to the participants to view the areas of the brain responsible for the stress response and saliva samples were taken to calculate circulating cortisol.


At baseline, both groups were similar in age and chronic stress scores. Post dietary intervention, the group consuming the sucrose showed decreased activity in the areas of the brain responsible for our stress response as well as a significantly different salivary cortisol numbers. The sucrose group also reported less nausea from the naltrexone than the aspartame group.


"The other major part of dealing with stress is to be prepared. This is most people’s downfall." 

My first thought was that these results make sense. We do need a certain amount of glucose to function. Also, the participants who were at the higher end of the BMI range might not have been able to function on free fatty acids as efficiently, so depriving them of glucose could induce a stress response. This is similar to other weight-loss studies of low-carb diets that noted low-carb groups had a greater cortisol response.


Two weeks is by no means a lot of time and this one study is not going to make me go out and tell all of my clients to start consuming sugary beverages three times per day. But it does make you think for a moment. Could we use sugar in certain instances to help reduce our stress response?


Sugar Can Help When We Are Stressed

Reducing stress may be a positive aspect we never thought of when adding carbs to our post-workout nutrition. Not only does that glucose refuel our muscles, but it also may help reduce cortisol and get the muscle-building process started.


Sugar may also help us during times of acute stress. Let’s say you have to pull an all-nighter preparing a major presentation for your job. There are no food options because you have been working so hard you forgot to go grocery shopping. All you have in your house is leftover cake from grandma’s birthday.


In this situation, you know you will not be sleeping or eating (unless you choose the cake), and stress levels will be high while attempting to get your work done. This study suggests that eating the piece of cake may help to reduce cortisol levels enough to get you through this tough situation.


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A little sugar now and then can help get us through our day-to-day stresses.


The Real Problem With Sugar

The problem with sugar does not come from reaching for these foods during times of acute stress, but during times of chronic stress. Most of us tend to be overstressed on a day-to-day basis. We are sleep deprived, sedentary, nutrient deficient, and have to deal with financial and family issues. This can lead us to grab that piece of cake more than the one time it would actually be helpful.


And even with all of that said, there are still better options to handle acute stress then leaning on junk food. This is why active stress management should be an important part of anyone’s weight-loss plan. Try some meditation, deep breathing, visualization, or anything you can think of that helps put you in a state of relaxation. Be creative and find what works for you.


"[I]t does make you think for a moment. Could we use sugar in certain instances to help reduce our stress response?

The other major part of dealing with stress is to be prepared. This is most people’s downfall. Having healthy food options readily available is key to the success of your nutrition plan. I have some clients who prepare all of their food for the week on Sundays. Other clients cook extra every night they make dinner so they will have leftovers.


Research Implications

This study is intriguing, but had some holes in it because it looked at sugar consumption alone. I wonder how a higher fat or protein snack would have done compared to the sucrose group?


Nevertheless this research is interesting. In a really tough bind, when you are under a high level of acute stress, you may be able to hit up that vending machine and not have to stress yourself out over it (pun intended).


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1. Tryon, Matthew,, Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (2015). Retrieved on May 24, 2015. 


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