Of all the diet elements that can get a bad wrap, there are two that always top the list: sugar and sodium. Though too much of just about anything can be bad for you, these two components can also have their benefits in controlled amounts. Especially when you are pushing the boundaries of your physique to the extreme, in competitive sports and bodybuilding, these ingredients can create a surprisingly fast result in your appearance and ability.
Sugar is warned against in the typical healthy lifestyle because it is a simple carbohydrate, digested quickly by the body and stored as fat, according to BodyBuilding.com. Too much sugar in the bloodstream can cause long-term consequences so the body works to filter it out as fast as possible. When we eat sugar, our blood sugar levels spike, and insulin is released, which pumps the sugar into the muscles and fat cells. This is why constant high-sugar intake can lead to Diabetes and heart problems. But this insulin affect isn’t all bad.
After you workout, your muscles are being broken down and rebuilt, your body exhausted by all the stress you just put on it. Because your energy is so depleted, post-gym is actually a good time for a sweet snack. A quick dose of sugar will send energy straight to the muscles with little to no excess sugar being left over to store as fat. Your muscles soak up these carbohydrates better at this state than any other time of the day. You’ll also get a quick burst of energy, but because it’s so short lived that it’s not a huge benefit.
Not all sugar is gummy worms and chocolate cake, natural sources of sugar like fruit contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, water and fiber that support a healthy lifestyle, according to Fox News. Fiber is nature’s detox agent, cleaning out the digestive system to keep things running smoothly. Antioxidants are protective agents that defend our cells from external toxins and infection. Artificial sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame are what you should be more wary of because they have all the calories and none of the added benefits.
A bit of quick research will show you that the recommended daily sugar intake for men and women sounds surprisingly low. A measly 40 grams for men and 30 for women; a cap I could blow out in one bowl of cereal. But keep in mind this is based on what the FDA refers to as “added sugar”. These are processed sugars thrown in the mix of most junk foods. It’s easy to find your recommended daily intake of this type of sugar and just about everything else; carbs, proteins, fats, you name it. But natural sugar is pretty ambiguous. Diet experts have skipped over this little detail because a majority of Americans don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables as it is so it’s better to encourage more and not less, according to Popsugar Fitness. As long as you focus on whole, natural ingredients while keeping your daily calorie intake in check, natural sugar shouldn’t be something to fear.
Unlike sugar, sodium can be classified as a vital nutrient when consumed properly. It’s a powerful electrolyte that aids in muscle contraction, fluid retention, heart health, and nervous system function, according to Organic Facts. It works with the nerves and sends electrical impulses throughout the body, counteracting cramps and other little discomforts. An active lifestyle has to be balanced with adequate hydration and body temperature regulation, both of which are supported by sodium.
Sodium becomes a helpful tool for many bodybuilders about to step on stage. The goal for these competitors is to cut any excess fluids and fat storage in the body to reveal the best muscle definition. Manipulating sodium levels can have a huge affect on how “full” the muscles look and the vascularity of veins. The body stores fluid inside the cells and outside the cells, extracurricular and intracellular, according to BodyBuilding.com. Extracurricular is the good stuff, the water inside the muscles that gives you a pumped-up look. Intracellular is the external fluid that these athletes are trying to eliminate. Because sodium plays such a big role in the body’s overall fluid balance, it’s a nutrient thats put under the microscope the closer bodybuilders get to showtime.
Now this is not permission to choke down an entire salt shaker with your next meal. Just like a majority of Americans under eat their fruits and vegetables, we have a habit of overeating high-sodium junk. While healthy amounts of sodium boost your blood pressure to a healthy level, too much will shoot it through the roof and put you at risk for long-term cardiovascular conditions like hypertension, according to Healthy Eating. It can also affect your bones, kidney function and hormone balance, so it’s important to keep your consumption under control. Experts say you should aim for a sodium intake of 1,500 milligrams per day, but don't exceed 2,300 milligrams daily.
Sugar and sodium definitely have their downsides when you go overboard, contributing to weight and fat gain, as well as an array of other health problems, but that doesn’t mean they should be avoided all together. No one wants a diet without anything sweet or salty to really satiate that feeling of hunger. Find ways to swap out artificially flavored snacks for ones with more natural ingredients without sacrificing flavor. If you do overindulge, observe how these nutrients affect your body and muscle definition, and learn how to use them for your benefit. A healthy, balanced lifestyle should never be about fear and deprivation. You can feed those food cravings and reach your goals at the same time.
Take it from me
I have always had a major sweet tooth. If it were up to me, I would never eat another bag of chips again so long as I could survive on sour patch kids and chocolate chip pancakes. I feel the most satiated by sweet, dense carbs so I had to find a way to fit those into my diet without going too crazy. To avoid all the processed sugar, I piled on the fruit as many times a day as possible. Lots of blueberries, strawberries and bananas at least two to three times a day. Not only does this pack in all the important vitamins and minerals, but it also keeps me from feeling like I’m missing out on my favorite foods.
Because of this tendency, sodium isn’t a huge problem for me. The benefits can easily outweigh the consequences with just a few simple diet adjustments. A lot of my favorite salty foods like meat and fats have a natural flavor that I love, and I don’t ever feel the need to grab a salt shaker. I love the raw taste of things most days. I’ve found that my taste buds adjust to what I constantly expose them to. When I ate artificial junk for years, that’s all my body wanted. But when I implemented healthier choices for a while, I started to crave those things to.
Sugar and sodium can work hand in hand with a balanced, fit lifestyle if you’re willing to take a closer look at your food choices. Find alternatives, feed the craving and love the food you eat.