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Sugar and Spice or all things Vice?

How to be Smart with Carbs

I posted this blog a few years ago and it seems relevant again now. The sugar debate continues - its still an issue. When I first wrote this in 2017, there were 3.2 million people suffering from type II diabetes in the UK. There are now 4.8 million. This article is not about the different types of sugars. You'll find that in a lot of places and there is a link to an article about that below. I do however want to talk about hormones in relation to sugar. It’s a story we all know only too well, because it’s happening inside us every day. Most hormonal changes are subtle, day to day, hour by hour. They are going on all the time, working hard to keep our bodies in balance. If you are a trainer, coach or counsellor, I hope it gets you to also think a little more about how you can help your clients. I would also welcome views and comments and further information from anyone on this. The more we talk, the more we all learn.

So here’s my attempt to explain how sugar and hormones impact our metabolism in the hope that it will make us all try to shift our lives and put sugar in its proper place.

Whilst I know not all sugars are the same (you can read more about this in the link below) consider for now that all carbs get broken down into glucose so that they can enter the blood stream (that’s blood sugars) and this is the really interesting part….

When we eat carbs the pancreas releases insulin which, along with glucose receptors, we need to help transport glucose into our cells. The idea that we don’t need ANY carbohydrates to me doesn’t make sense. It’s still the brain’s preferred fuel source and studies have shown that whilst long, endurance training can utilize fat as fuel source effectively, the absence of carbs as a fuel source in shorter duration training - that’s anything under an hour, i.e. the stuff most people do, impairs performance and training becomes less effective.

The more carbohydrate we consume however, the more insulin we produce – that’s important to take note of. By contrast, both fats and proteins do not generate an insulin response. Already this should be making you think about how eating all three is important for hormonal balance.

Sugars are used in 3 ways:

1) used immediately as fuel

2) stored as glycogen in the muscles

3) stored as fat

One really useful property of Insulin is that it can help to stimulate muscle growth. The more muscle you have, the greater your ability to store glycogen - that means we have a greater capacity to harness those carbs and put them to good use. But the only way that’s going to happen is if you exercise. And the more you move, particularly to stimulate muscle growth, then the more you are going to be able to harness that insulin, improve your metabolism and your body composition. The best way to increase your lean muscle tissue is to strength train - hence why we focus so much on this in our classes

When you eat carbs, timing is crucial. You need to then go use them as only a finite amount can be stored in muscle. The fitter you are the greater this store is but it’s still only a small amount - enough to fuel a sprint or a fast paced activity that lasts a short while. So here’s the thing: if you don’t use these carbs by moving, they will be stored as fat. So eat carbs, but then GO MOVE. If you train hard, eating carbs afterwards is a good way to ensure you are replenishing those glycogen stores.

The next point to consider is how much. And this is where the old food pyramid has become defunct. The idea of complex carbs (starches) being our largest portion on a plate really is old hat. Even if you are a high fuel-burning athlete you should give careful consideration to the need to keep everything in balance.

To call out exactly how much you need would take some calculating – the kind of measuring an athlete gets through an individualized and tailored diet. This is however where I believe you can be your own best judge. You and only you live with YOU 24/7. To workout exactly what you should be eating requires careful consideration of what happens to your body when you eat carbs. As an active person all of my life, I buffeted my way through a mountainous level of carbs and as a consequence would see my weight constantly fluctuate. My weight is far more manageable now that I eat carbs on a ‘need too’ basis only (well for at least 90% of the time – I did say ‘vice’, not ‘nice’!) Look at the average breakfast – cereal, toast, orange juice, even smoothies or a latte – it’s all carbs and far more carbs than the average person needs. Eating a breakfast like this will spike insulin levels hugely, whilst some insulin is good, particularly for active people, too much can be an issue, especially if you battle with your weight.


So many of us are eating carbs when we least need them! Just start to clock it, When was your last carb binge? After a night out? When you were tired? On a lazy weekend? When you were feeling emotional or eating late at night?

  • Eat them for breakfast but only if you about to MOVE AND MOVE BIG!

  • Eat them straight after a big workout- your body is more receptive to them but again don't go overboard on this - a recent study has highlighted also how eating carbohydrates may adversely affect insulin sensitivity if stored overnight.......

So if you are sitting around or off to bed - YOU DON’T NEED THEM!

Rather than being scared of carbs, we need to learn how to harness them to our best advantage. The real issue arises when we continue, over a long periods, to over eat carbs. If your fitness levels aren’t great, your body is less able to work efficiently – so it keeps on producing more insulin to try to help transport the glucose around your body. This is how we become insulin insensitive. It’s a slippery slope and the reason 4.8 million people in the UK are currently diagnosed with Type II diabetes. 12.3 million are pre-diabetic - thats over a third of the UK population.

When insulin levels rise, other hormones also become affected. Ghrelin is the hormone that makes you feel hungry and Dopamine provides you with that feel good factor. Both of these go up when insulin levels are high - Eat a cookie and it hits your system quickly, creating an Insulin spike that increases your Ghrelin and Dopamine response too. Before you know it, the cookie jar is empty. It’s this hormonal response that makes sugar so addictive. As well as some hormones rising, others will decrease. Leptin is the hormone that makes you feel full, this will go down when insulin goes up. Another really important clincher is the fact that when all this Insulin is lingering around your blood stream, it inhibits the hormone HSL (Hormone Sensitive Lipase). This is the hormone that helps to burn fat. So when Insulin is high, even when you are exercising, you are less likely to be able to burn fat.

Whether you are struggling to lose weight or working hard on your exercise and diet but just not seeing results, start to think about the fact that it’s hormones that should be driving your sugar cravings, not sugar itself.

Source of information for this post came from a lecture I attended at the IDEA Convention in LA 2014. Balancing our Hormones for Optimal Weight Loss, Presented by Marc Bubbs ND.

2021 - post updated - study Post-Exercise Carbohydrate-Energy Replacement Attenuates Insulin Sensitivity and Glucose Tolerance the Following Morning in Healthy Adults.

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