“Refining” How I Look At Sugar – Training and Loading

It’s hard to describe my relationship with sugar as anything but. We’ve been through a lot of phases in life together.

First, my parents restricted you. Back then, I didn’t appreciate them trying to keep us away from each other, but I do now. After I moved away from home, we hung out – no commitment, no consequences. That was my 20s. As my 30s waxed, it seemed like we were seeing more of each other (and more of me). Now, in my 40s, we’ve been trying to work out our issues. We broke up for a brief period, but then I decided I couldn’t live without you. People keep telling me you’re toxic. I try to stay away, only to return with regret.

I watched “Sugar Coated” last week (can you tell?). It’s a very interesting documentary, although I am not going to review it here per se. There are intelligent, rational people who believe that sugar is causing a public health crisis. My personal experience doesn’t disprove that. One of the scarier things the film scared me about in the scary way it went about scaring its audience was this: while obesity is skyrocketing, even normal weight people who are achieving normal weight with the aid of exercise but maintaining a sugar-packed diet often have the same metabolic profile as the obese. To illustrate this point, they rolled some footage of runners in the Toronto marathon. Then, they followed that up with an interview of an uber-fit Scandinavian dude who had pre-diabetic A1C counts despite his fitness level.

poster-sugarcoated

So, I’ve rededicated myself to cutting down on my refined sugar consumption. I was able to maintain total abstinence (from all carbs, actually) for about 2 months a couple of years ago, but it decreased my quality of life too much. I find I am happiest and feel the best on a modified Paleo diet (I tolerate dairy, so I add it). I have tended to let myself cheat on that with refined sugar, and I go through cycles where I am justifying cheating more and more (I’m sick. I ran a lot today. Etc.). Having a clear goal and a reward helps me in other areas, so I’m going to apply it here. The current plan is: no refined sugar whatsoever until Friday night, then I’ll permit myself a reasonable dessert with refined sugar. I froze some blueberry pie, so that’s tomorrow! Sunday through Thursday have gone fine, although the cookies that came with Firm Lunch Day yesterday were pretty hard to resist. I eat a serving or so of fruit at every meal, so this is not a zero-carb plan.

As far as training goes, as I said this is not a zero-carb plan, although I expect cutting down on the refined sugar will get me where I’d prefer to be weight-wise (closer to 160 than 170). I’ll continue my routine of mostly fasted runs. I always run before eating in the morning. My current plan has some evening running (two-a-days) a couple of times each week, but I don’t do well eating a bigger meal like dinner and then running an hour or two later.

I have put some thought into pre-race carbo-loading as a result of this new commitment. In the past I have always loaded with a dextrose or sucrose solution, as described in detail here. However, the weird (wired?) feeling I have during that day of loading is something I assume is due to the wild blood sugar spikes I’m sure that throws at my body. So, I decided to look for something with a lower glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a carbohydrate-containing food turns into blood sugar. On a scale of 0 to 100, foods at 0 contain no carbohydrates. 100 is glucose/dextrose, a pure simple sugar. A high GI is 55 and above. So, I thought, perhaps something with a lower GI might take the edge off my blood sugar spikes. At first, I investigated UCAN, the so-called “superstarch,” a complex carb. The first deterrent is that it’s insanely expensive. A tub is $60, and I’d use up all of that trying to load with it. Since I’m cheap, I wondered if there was anything roughly equivalent to substitute for it. In the course of doing that, I ran across this intriguing blog post. UCAN is corn starch + marketing. What??? Also, it seemed to me like maltodextrin was a straw man, given its GI of 95. Corn starch has a GI of 95 too! That kind of surprised me – I thought a complex carb like a starch would have a lower GI. What’s UCAN’s GI? While I confess I haven’t thoroughly researched it, UCAN and its advocates could make it easier to find this information. I searched through a lot of gobbledygook in this blog post, only to find a claim of “low acute glycemic index” but no number. I did find a 10% off code, #objectivity. Just kidding. There is a code though if you want it.

Despite being willing to choke down UCAN or even corn starch (blech) I’m not sure it’d be worth the suffering. Again, my carbo-loading requirements are low GI, zero fiber. That rules out a lot of carb-rich foods. I considered honey and maple syrup (both between 50 and 60, depending on who’s counting) – both far lower than dextrose at 100 and lower than table sugar (sucrose) which wasn’t as high as I thought it would be at 63.

Enter fructose: GI 25. It seems too good to be true. Mind you, I am not talking about HFCS, I’m talking about this stuff. I’m thinking about modifying my recipe to use fructose to carbo-load. I need 810 g of carbs. Fructose has 4 g per tsp. So I’d need 202.5 tsp. over that day. At 48 tsp/cup, that’s rounded up to 4 1/4 cups of fructose into solution. The only thing I am nervous about is that it’s supposed to taste twice as sweet as table sugar. My recipe is already sickly sweet. I’ll have to do a dry run with some of this stuff so I don’t ruin my fall marathon, but as of now, this is the loading plan!

EDIT/UPDATE: As the old adage goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I initially hoped there might be some difference between HFCS and crystalline fructose, but as far as the liver is concerned, there really isn’t. The low GI of fructose isn’t a function of it being “better” than sucrose or glucose, it’s just that it is metabolized in a dramatically different way. And “different” isn’t better. While the sugar in fruits is fructose, there’s enough fiber etc. in relation to the sugar that you’re not getting the huge hit like you do with processed foods containing HFCS, which is why they’re so bad for you! I’m back to the drawing board – maybe my dextrose (glucose) recipe is still the way to go. Or perhaps I’ll try to figure out a way to make a corn or potato starch palatable without adding fiber. Stay tuned!

I’ll close with this statistical truth (easy, Mark Twain): the average American today weighs 30 pounds more than his/her counterpart of 50 years ago. Yikes. Before running and some diet changes, that almost exactly describes the two mes – 30 pounds apart.

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