“You look good. Do you work out?”
No, that’s not what I do. I don’t like the vernacular “I work out.”
It sounds like a meandering, generic, unreflected concept—because it is one. People who think in terms of “workouts” don’t actually train. Training is a systematic, goal-oriented, efficient, no-nonsense, graduated plan. A background in the martial arts preps you for thinking in these terms. You don’t walk into a martial arts studio for a “workout.” Sure, you’ll get one, but the physical exercise is sort of incidental. You’re specifically training to develop a range of skills, to advance your rank, and to increase your knowledge-base in topics relevant to your field.
Serious weight-lifting or gym-going is the same. You’re not in it for a once-off workout—every training session builds on the last, and they carry you towards a definite objective with steadily increasing momentum. Whether your goals are aesthetic and qualitative (i.e., you’re after a tapered torso and bigger biceps) or quantitative (i.e., you want to deadlift 405 pounds,) the objectives cannot be reached in the short term. It is a long-term objective, something that takes systematic training and perseverance to attain. If you thought only in terms of once-off, individual workouts, your goals would evaporate.
Now, the Zen saying that “If you keep your eyes on the goal, you won’t be able to see the path” is true. If you are so consumed with your goals that your relationship with individual workouts becomes stoney-faced, militant and unenjoyable, you won’t actually reach those goals that you cherish. You have to value the experience to build on the experience. Every workout is a unit of currency for, in essence, buying you the effect you want. Each one is a penny. A hundred make a dollar. You want 20 inch biceps? Okay, that’ll be $100 dollars. Better start hoarding those pennies. Careful not to get too self-satisfied with small change, because you need real money here. But also, don’t get too casual about undervaluing pennies, because if you don’t value them as well as they deserve, they’ll never collect in large enough quantities to amount to much.
And as you “mature” in your training, you’ll have an evolving relationship with the currency. When you were five, having $20 felt like being rich. You could practically buy everything you could imagine wanting. By the time you were sixteen, you were dropping $25 dollars a day, easily. By the time you reached adulthood, you would hardly feel rich with anything short of $1,000,000. So as your training goes on, your accrued “wealth” of effort and experience is still divisible down to the level of individual pennies, but the sheer volume of pennies you need to approach the goals you have at your level is staggering. Your goals are not only evolving, but your ability to formulate goals is evolving. As you go, you are unlocking an understanding of things you want that you didn’t even know you wanted in the beginning.
It’s a balancing act. Cherish the pennies—but remember you are dealing in dollars.
And then you’re not just meandering from workout to workout. You’re training.
First of all, let me just get this off my chest:
WEIGHT IS SUCH A FUCKING STUPID METRIC TO MEASURE A HUMAN BEING WITH, HOW DID THE IDEA CATCH ON IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Don’t think I’m starting off on a moral note or being anti-vanity. I’m making a neutral statement, there. I’m not saying “It’s wrong to aspire to certain physical aesthetics,” I’m just saying that thinking only about weight is a fundamentally misguided way of approaching those aesthetics. Even in completely vain terms—purely as a means working on one’s appearance—weight is a stupid absolute metric to be following. What I’m saying is, there are more effective ways of being vain—worrying exclusively and obsessively about weight is a clumsy method.
As a bodybuilder, I recognize that my relationship to my weight is literally inverted from the average person’s. Most people want to lose a few pounds and keep them off—whereas I want to gain twenty-eight pounds and keep them on. Most people would get depressed if they realized they’ve “outgrown” their clothes and need to shop for a new wardrobe. I, one the other hand, get wicked excited when I can no longer squeeze into a pair of jeans, and feel like we should go out to dinner and celebrate whenever it becomes impossible to fasten the top button on one of my dress shirts.
But the inversion of my value system around weight doesn’t change the fact that it is a stupid metric to attach absolute meaning to. Still looking at this purely in terms of vanity, there are too many other variables involved in physical aesthetics for weight to be really useful as the be-all-and-end-all measurement. Muscularity, symmetry, etc., etc. If my concern is creating a certain physical image, I need to be thinking about a whole slew of other things besides my weight—including qualitative rather than qualitative things, like posture and movement. Those all factor into appearance—most of them are vastly more significant than weight.
Weight is the sole measurement by which a farmer determines the value of a pumpkin. If you judge yourself primarily according to weight, you are cultivating yourself like a farmer cultivates a champion pumpkin. (That goes whether you’re trying to lose weight like most people, or trying to gain weight, like a bodybuilder. Whichever change on the scale you attach value to, the scale is fundamentally the same, and fundamentally lacking as a real measurement of what you’re trying to achieve.)
If we take the pursuit of an “ideal weight” out of the context of vanity and place it in the context of “health” or “fitness,” it becomes an even more wildly misguided and fundamentally absurd, abortive fiasco. Muscle weighs more than fat. Bone and cartilage weigh something, too—and since the process of getting “more fit” involves getting more muscle, denser bones and stronger joints, changes in weight associated with increased fitness are influenced by many more variables than just fat loss.
(I can’t stress this enough to anybody lifting weights or building strength in any way: even if you’re not trying to “get bulky,” you’re still building more muscle as you get more fit. Touching very briefly on the subject, literally every body movement is facilitated by little contractile proteins in the core of each muscle fiber—getting stronger is a measurable mechanical effect of new proteins being added inside the fiber. That translates to weight. A stronger muscles weighs more, even if it isn’t visibly “bulkier.”)
And as you get more fit, no matter what kind of training you’re doing, nine times out of ten you’re perforce going to start adhering to better habits of hydration. BAM, more water in your body, more weight to your body. Think about that. It obviously doesn’t mean chronic dehydration is a healthier option because you’ll weigh less. It means weight is, for yet another reason, fucking flawed as a measurement of health or fitness.
Imagine for a second that you’re a sedentary guy, on the hefty side. You work a desk job, and have decided that your New Year’s Resolution is to become more active. You start a new fitness routine.
When you tell somebody that you want to get in shape, you say, “I want to lose weight.” That’s shorthand for what you mean, which is “I want to alter my body composition and increase my level of general physical conditioning in order to enjoy improved health and quality of life, and potentially greater longevity, and, coincidentally, enhance my physical aesthetics.”
That’s a mouthful; of course you go for the weight-loss shorthand. But here’s the kicker: that’s absolutely not an accurate or acceptable summation of your objectives, because even though a corollary of your overall goal is to lose fat, fat loss is not what you’re measuring—the only thing you’re measuring is your weight. If you’re judging the success or failure of your new routine by changes in weight, and that means you’re judging it wrong.
Perhaps, after a few weeks, no significant reduction in weight causes you to become frustrated, lose motivation and give up on your resolution.
This isn’t a gray area. If you’re just going by weight, you’re doing it wrong.
If you instead judged your new fitness routine—which we’re just assuming is being done well and intelligently, so it carries the maximum possible benefit for your work—by the fact that your back and joints no longer hurt all the time, you can walk up a flight of stairs without having to pause at the top and catch your breath, you can actually enjoy playing outside with your kids; your mood is generally staying in a more positive emotional range day-to-day, you’re happier with how your body looks than you’ve been in years; your sex life is better than it’s been in years; you’re more energetic and more interested in life and engaged with the world than you’ve been in years—and I’ll stop there, because this list could still keep going on for a while—if you judged your success by all these things instead of weight, maybe weight would be fucking ousted from it’s central position in your view of “health.”
My girlfriend & I have joined forces on an e-book geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether it’s their first time or they’ve been doing it for a while, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.
(My girlfriend is a professional yoga teacher, and blogs at: http://yogamattes.com )
You can see the chapters on sweating and hydration in older posts, on my blog or hers. Again, these are chapters from an e-book geared towards hot yoga class, but the information in it is applicable to all kinds of athletes. We’re writing this guide from our experience in hot yoga, but we’re not just hot yogis—we’re hot no matter what we’re doing. (Har, har. See what I did there?) Anyway, here is some basic information about maintaining electrolyte balance, and what those electrolytes are actually doing in your body.
Chapter 3: Electrolytes
Balancing your hydration level is about more than just water. When thinking about sweat-loss and water intake, you also need to think about electrolytes. Your body’s nerve reactions and muscle functions depend on the proper concentration and exchange of these chemicals.
What exactly are electrolytes? Chemically, they are substances that ionize in solution (that is, dissolve in water) and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Some of the specific ones that are commonly measured by doctors are: sodium, potassium and chloride. These substances are lost through heavy sweating—and if you rehydrate with only clear water, then your electrolyte levels will be thrown out of balance; the ratio of water to electrolytes in your body will be altered.
Sodium is a majorly important positive ion in the fluid outside of cells (the interstitial fluid, like we talked about above.) The chemical notation of sodium is Na+. You know sodium best after it’s been combined with chloride—that’s the chemical composition of table salt.
Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body, and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells plays a vital role in critical body functions (as we’ll see when we talk about nerve impulse conduction below.) Many, many processes in the body and brain require the conduction of electrical impulses for communication, integration and control, and the movement of sodium (a positive ion) is essential in generating these electrical signals. Therefore, too much or too little sodium leads to cell malfunction.
Potassium is a major positive ion found inside of cells (it’s chemical notation is K+.) Proper potassium level is essential for normal cell function—among many other things, it regulates heartbeat and the function of the muscles. A serious disruption of potassium levels can critically affect the nervous system and increases the risk of irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias.)
Hypokalemia is a decreased level of potassium. It can be brought on by kidney diseases, or excessive loss due to vomiting, diarrhea, or—most relevant to our subject—heavy sweating.
Chloride (Cl-) is a major negative ion found in the fluid outside of cells and in the blood. It is closely regulated by the body, and plays a role in maintaining a normal balance of fluids. Just like all the other electrolytes, it can be thrown out of balance by various diseases, but, relevant to our discussion, excessive loss can occur through heavy sweating.
Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance
An electrolyte imbalance can create a number of different symptoms—and the specific symptoms that manifest will depend on which of the electrolyte levels are affected. Altered potassium, sodium, magnesium or calcium levels can lead to: muscle spasm or cramping, weakness, twitching and convulsion.
When the levels are low (the more likely scenario in a Bikram Yoga class, as opposed to high,) it can cause: irregular heartbeat, confusion, blood pressure changes, headache, dizziness and nausea.
In a hot yoga or Bikram Yoga class, by far the most common signs of electrolyte imbalance will be headache, dizziness, nausea, and cramping.
Replenishing Lost Electrolytes
So we know now that these ionizing substances are essential for a host of critical body functions, and that they are lost during heavy sweating, potentially, and very likely, to the point of excess. So the next step, logically, is to replace the lost electrolytes and maintain the balance. The best way to do that is with consistent intake of electrolytes.
A good rule of thumb to follow: drink your water with electrolytes. Don’t just chug clear water before, while, and after sweating heavily—replenish your lost water and your lost electrolytes together by adding sources of electrolytes directly to your water. As one example: try clear water with added raw honey to taste, a pinch of unrefined salt, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Take this concoction with you into class—steadily replete both your electrolytes and water together, even as you deplete them through sweating.
When, during or after class, you need an extra boost of electrolytes, supplementation is appropriate. If you experience symptoms of electrolyte imbalance as you practice, you should seek out some concentrated source, such as electrolyte-replenishment packets (like “Emergen-C” or “Ultima,”) or simply a small pinch of sea salt dissolved on the tongue.
Meanwhile, take electrolytes in steadily through diet in your daily life. Don’t rely on concentrated supplementation alone. What that means is, if you do something that causes you extreme electrolyte depletion all the time—like sweating heavily in a Bikram yoga class several times per week—take the initiative. Take steps to prevent imbalances in the first place. You should always be attempting to take in replacement electrolytes at a steady pace throughout your daily life—not only in occasional concentrated mouthfuls after you have already realized the balance is drastically off. This is done through a diet rich in electrolytes. For instance, you know you’re going to consistently lose potassium through sweat in class—so take it in just as consistently, from dietary sources like bananas or coffee. Or whatever—just find sources that work for you and make electrolyte replenishment a dietary priority.
Electrolytes should be taken in in the same consistent, gradual, measured way that you supply your body with water. You know you lose a great deal of water in class, so you consistently take in reasonable amounts of water during the day, every day. In other words, you keep hydration in mind even when you’re not dehydrated. In the same way, keep electrolyte balance in mind, even before you experience symptoms of imbalance.
Extra Notes on Sodium
Sodium warrants special attention for a couple of reasons. One, it is among the main electrolytes lost in sweat (hence sweat’s salty taste.) Two, you generally don’t get much of it from commercially available electrolyte drinks and powders. As a result, you may be taking in a healthy amount of other electrolytes, but, because you are losing so much through sweat and taking in so little through electrolyte drinks or powders, you may still fall short of replenishing lost sodium.
General medical guidelines for low sodium levels recommend restricting fluid intake in order to prevent hyponatremia (too little sodium in the body, relative to water,) but in the context of Bikram Yoga practice, limiting fluid intake is not appropriate. That guideline is general, and does not apply to anyone who regularly loses huge amounts of water through sweat. In the case of low sodium-concentration brought on by massive loss through sweating and dilution by clear water intake, the solution is, logically, increased intake of sodium. A pinch of salt on the tongue, a pinch of salt added to your water, a sprinkling of salt on your food after class. However you take it in, you will need a little boost of sodium to properly replenish what you lose while practicing, before you’re ready to go into the room and sweat again.
Certain medications may cause electrolyte imbalances, such as: chemotherapy drugs, diuretics, antibiotics and corticosteroids. If you are on any of these medications, it is important to keep track of your electrolyte levels. Make sure your doctor knows you are practicing hot yoga and understands how much heavy sweating is involved.
Chapter 4: Nerves
Electrolytes are essential for generating the electrical impulses that facilitate the nervous system’s communication and control. How exactly does that work? We’ll take a short, simplified look at it, to a) illustrate how the electrolytes we’ve discussed actually function by conducting electrical impulses and b) to set the stage for the next chapter, wherein we’ll look at the nervous system. There are two main types of cells in the nervous system—neuroglia and neurons. Neurons are the one we’ll be considering here. They can be afferent (conducting impulses towards the brain) or efferent (conducting impulses away from the brain.)
A neuron consists of a cell body (also called the soma or perikaryon,) the axon, and one or more dendrites. The dendrites of a neuron are processes that stick off and branch like tiny trees (in fact, the name comes from the Greek word for tree.) The dendrites receive impulses to conduct from other neurons. Once received, the impulse travels down the axon—a long process, like a thin tail—and reaches the next neuron by way of terminal branched filaments called telodendria. Axons can vary in length from a meter long to a few millimeters. They also vary in width—from about 20 nanometers down to a single nanometer.
In order to understand how impulse conduction works, and how electrolytes are involved, it pays to get familiar with a few relevant terms.
Potential difference—an electrical difference, or an electrical gradient. A potential difference is the difference between the electrical charge present at two points. A potential difference is a form of potential energy. It is a force that has the potential to move positively charged ions down an electrical gradient, that is, from a point of higher positive charge to a point of lower positive charge.
Polarized membrane—a membrane whose outer and inner surface have different amounts of electrical charges. Basically, a potential difference exists across a polarized membrane.
Depolarized membrane—a membrane whose outer and inner surface have equal amounts of electrical charge. A potential difference does not exist across a depolarized membrane; it is zero.
When a neuron is not conducting, the inner surface of its membrane is slightly negative to its outer surface. There is a potential difference across its membrane—in a nonconducting neuron, this is called “resting potential.” The mechanism that creates this resting potential is primarily a sodium-potassium pump, built into the neuron’s plasma membrane (the outer membrane of the neuron.) This pump actively transports positive sodium and potassium ions through the plasma membrane in opposite directions and at different rates. For every 3 sodium ions it moves out, it moves 2 potassium ions in. If, for instance, it pumped 100 potassium ions into a nerve cell from the extracellular fluid, it concurrently pumps 150 sodium ions out of the cell. This makes the inner surface of the neuron’s membrane slightly less positive—or, slightly negative—to its outer surface.
Blamo—there you have the potential difference in a nonconducting neuron known as resting potential. Now, an impulse comes along for the “resting” neuron to conduct.
1) When a sufficient stimulus is applied to the neuron, it vastly increases the permeability of its membrane to sodium ions at the point of stimulation (it lets more sodium in.)
2) The positive sodium ions rush in towards the point of stimulation. The excess of sodium outside the membrane, therefore, diminishes. It quickly reaches zero. In other words, the stimulated point of the membrane is no longer polarized. But only for an instant. Quickly—within milliseconds—the positive sodium ions streaming in create an excess of sodium inside the cell and trigger an action potential. An action potential is a potential difference across a neuron’s membrane with the inside positive to the outside. So, since resting potential has the inside negative to outside, action potential is a reverse polarization. The inside becomes positive to the outside. Development of action potential at the stimulated point of the neuron marks the beginning of impulse conduction.
3) A chain reaction occurs. The action potential of the stimulated part of the membrane becomes the stimulus for the adjacent part of the membrane, and that next stimulated point goes into the same process. The action potential moves along the length of the neuron, point by point, conducting the electrical impulse on to its destination.
[Next up, the nervous system and the fight-or-flight response.]
Next summer, everybody is going to be looking for a fast, easy way to get a flat stomach and six-pack abs.
I’m here to tell you: winter is the time to start. Give yourself MONTHS to undertake your new fitness routine and make steady progress. That way you’ll have real, lasting results to show off next summer when you finally pull the big reveal and take your shirt off the first day it’s warm and sunny again.
I’m also here to share the one big secret everyone who’s looking for a way to melt fat, build muscle and transform their body needs to know: you’ll have to train hard, and train consistently. There’s no magic trick. I have nothing to sell you, and anyone who says they have something to sell you “to make getting fit easy” is lying. You don’t need a miracle, you just need to work steadily and have a critical, intelligent attitude towards your physical conditioning. Don’t take everything everyone tells you about fitness and nutrition at face value. Discriminate. There is a ton of bad advice out there—way more bad than good. Time to tackle some of the long-standing misconceptions surrounding “getting a six-pack,” and maybe arrive at some good ideas about intelligent training in the process.
• Forget crunches and sit-ups. They are a lousy exercise for your abs, and they put more strain on your low-back than they’re worth. I realize it might be hard to sever all ties with an exercise that’s been touted for generations, but once you’ve tried a few ab workouts composed of better exercises, you won’t even miss crunches or sit-ups.
• Recognize that your abs don’t function alone when you exercise. You don’t get nice abs without having a nice core. Core muscles include everything from just below the chest, down to your knees—front and back. Working abs safely and effectively is going to involve working that whole area.
• “Plank” is your friend. Plank is a terrific core-muscle workout. You can’t do too much plank. Start off shooting for a 30 second hold, and gradually try to build to a minute. Then two minutes!
• If you’re going to plank, do it right. Hips parallel to the floor. Elbows in line underneath your shoulders.
• Is plank getting easy? Make it harder. As it gets easier, try moving your elbows forward from the line of your shoulders. It’ll be way harder!
• There are a million and one other plank variations. Do your homework. Find the variations that you like, that work for you, and try them out! Have fun. Play plank.
• Try out other core workouts, find what works for you. Have you ever tried knee-raises? L-sits? Why not? Try it. Try new things! Have fun!
• L-sits: Space two chairs next to each other, so you can stand between them with your arms down by your sides, hands on the chair backs (make sure they’re chairs that will stay steadily in place as you go.) Lift your feet off the floor, so now you’re holding yourself up with your hands. With legs straight and toes pointed, try to raise your legs parallel to the floor. That’s an L-sit! Hold it as long as you can, even if that’s only 1 or 2 seconds at first. Work steadily! Keep trying, build it up to 30 seconds. Who cares if it takes a long time to develop?
• Get a workout buddy. It’s easier to train with a friend than alone.
• Try this fun workout with your buddy: Partner A lays down flat on their back, raises feet up vertical to the floor. Partner B stands over Partner A’s head, and Partner A grabs Partner B’s ankles with both hands for stability. Now, Partner B (not too hard at first!) pushes Partner A’s feet away. Just a quick push, directly away—Partner A will get a terrific core workout by trying to keep his or her legs straight up in the air while they’re being pushed away. When you’re tired, switch places and give your buddy a turn!
• Knee-raises: Hang straight down from a pull-up bar. Bring your bent legs up until your knees are parallel to the floor. From there, raise your legs up towards your chest, high as your can, then lower them back to parallel. That’s one rep. Do as many as you can! Build up to 12 over time.
• Leg-raises: Lay flat on your back—if you want, you can put your hands underneath your tailbone for extra support. Raise your legs two inches off the floor. That’s all. Just hold it! You’ll quickly realize what a good core workout it is. Navy SEALs don’t do this in bootcamp for no reason.
• Scissor-kicks: After you’re done with leg-raises, stay in position while you catch your breath. When you’re ready, lift your legs up again two inches off the floor. Now, gently kick your legs up and down, legs staying straight, alternating. One up, one down, one up, one down. Legs never touch the floor as you go, they just keep going up and down a couple inches in the air. Go until your tired, put your lags down and catch your breath, then do another set. What do you have in common with a black-belt? This exercise.
• Train with free weights. Do your homework on the proper way to work with a barbell. Get a coach. Seriously. Free weights are way more effective than training with gym machines. Squats, deadlifts, bench-press. They will all work your core in a positive way.
• Forget about weighing yourself. Weight is a stupid metric for measuring the success of a health and fitness regimen. Really—muscle weighs more than fat. Also, as you get more fit, other changes in your body composition are going to play into changing your weight. Things like denser bones and stronger joints—they will change your weight. Just going by weight is a really narrow, pointless way to measure your health.
• You can do more to change your body with exercise than you can with diet. Forget fad diets. Forget diet “reboots” and “jumpstarts.” Those are short-term results. You want long-term results. You get those long-term results from exercise—as long as you’re consistent and make an ongoing commitment to your fitness training.
• Have incremental goals. Abandon the mindset that always looks for sudden, miraculous transformations, and gives up when you don’t immediately see the results you want. Instead of having such broad, extravagant goals that they serve to discourage rather than motivate you—because you always see yourself falling beneath them—have incremental goals that carry you in the direction you want to go. There’s always a next step to take, there’s always progress to make. If your goals are incremental instead of all-or-nothing, you’ll always have the next goal within reach. You’ll always see yourself passing milestones, and that will give you the motivation to keep trudging along the road.
• Track your progress. Write everything down. Keep track of your workouts. Track how long your worked in each session, track everything you did. Keep good notes. Give yourself hard data to follow, to see what’s working and to measure your progress.
Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. They are carbohydrates, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharide and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide. (In the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose.) Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.
Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are only present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane is any of several species of giant grass in the genus Saccharum that have been cultivated in tropical climates in South Asia and Southeast Asia since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century, with the layout of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the masses, who previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet, a cultivated variety of Beta vulgaris, is grown as a root crop in cooler climates and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century, when methods for extracting the sugar became available. In a shit ton of ways, sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history. It influenced the formation of fucking colonies, the fucking perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the fucking migration of peoples, wars between sugar trade-controlling nations in the 19th century, and the fucking ethnic composition and political structure of the new world.
The world produced about 168 million fuck-tons of sugar in 2011. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms of sugar each year (33.1 kg in industrialized countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person, per day.
Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is good for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume, or are largely free of any sugar consumption.
Let’s get lay down some background shit about nutrition, so you’ll have a clearer conceptual framework to keep in mind as we proceed. “Nutrients” are the nutritious components in foods that an organism utilizes to survive and grow. Duh. “Macronutrients” provide the bulk energy for an organism’s metabolic system to function, while “micronutrients” provide the necessary cofactors for metabolism to be carried out. Both types of nutrients can be acquired from the environment (or in other words, from diet). Carbohydrates are a vital macronutrient (and remember that sugar is a generalized term for forms of carbohydrates.) Carbohydrates break-down quickly in a rapid digestive process and are thus quickly available to the body as energy. Consequently, sugar provides a quick metabolic spike—and consequently they are not a stable, long-lasting source of energy. You can easily understand this without needing to consider it in physiological terms. Imagine a kid who wolfed down too much candy: they go fucking wild with a sudden blaze of energy, and afterwards “crash,” and, like a switch has been flipped, become overtired. This is because the sugars they ingested quickly metabolize and become available to the body (and brain) as energy, and, just as quickly, the energy is burned up, the metabolic spike is over and is followed by metabolic depression (i.e., tiredness) if no other, “longer-burning” food energy has been ingested. Proteins and fats are the other two forms of macronutrients our bodies require from diet, and both provide more stable, longer-lasting energy as they are digested.
Glucose is a simple monosaccharide found in plants. It is one of the three dietary monosaccharides, along with fructose and galactose, that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. It is an important carbohydrate in biology, which is indicated by the fact that cells use it as a secondary source of energy and a metabolic intermediate. In fact, that shit is used as an energy source in most organisms, from bacteria to humans. Use of glucose may be by either aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration, or fermentation. Glucose is the human body’s key source of energy, through aerobic respiration, providing about 3.75 kilocalories of food energy per gram. Breakdown of carbohydrates (again, that’s sugars) yields mono- and disaccharides, most of which is glucose. Through glycolysis and later in the reactions of the citric acid cycle, glucose is oxidized to eventually form carbon dioxide and water, yielding energy sources, mostly in the form of ATP (adenosine-triphosphate. Look it up. It’s outside the scope of this article, but it’s fucking interesting.) The insulin reaction, and other mechanisms, regulate the concentration of glucose in the blood.
Glucose is a primary source of energy for the brain, so its availability influences psychological processes. When glucose is low, psychological processes requiring mental effort (e.g., self-control, judgment, decision-making, etc,) are impaired.
Because sugar is such a general term, it’s natural that many people have only a vague idea of what it is and of its place in their diet. These vague ideas give rise to a lot of generalized misconceptions about it.
“Sugar is evil!” or “I don’t eat sugar,” are familiar slogans for people who follow conventional wisdom regarding healthy diet, and who simultaneously lack a very deep understanding of the term they are using. As a matter of fact, carbohydrates comprise the primary caloric (food-energy) content of plants, fruits and vegetables. A hypothetical person who takes a righteous pride in their healthy, sugar-free diet—who eats fruit for breakfast, a green smoothie for lunch, and sweet-potatoes for dinner—in actuality derives most of their food-energy over the course of the day from sugars.
A fact often cited by misguided proponents of a low-sugar (or, even more misguided, no-sugar) diet, is the fact that glucose in high concentrations in the bloodstream becomes toxic. The body deals with this, as mentioned above, by regulating the concentration through various mechanisms—including, notably, the insulin response. Insulin is a peptide hormone produced in the pancreas, which, among many other functions, serves to force the intake and storage of glucose in the liver, muscle cells, and adipose (fat) cells. This is a negative thing, low-sugar proponents claim, because the pancreas eventually becomes fatigued by the need for insulin-secretion and the body’s cells become gradually more insulin-resistant due to the increased levels of the hormone circulating in the bloodstream. Something to consider, before impulsively following this line of thinking, is that insulin-secretion is also stimulated by the metabolization of amino-acids—amino-acids are the building-blocks of proteins. Ergo, in healthy individuals there is a comparable increase of insulin secretion following the consumption of protein to that which follows the consumption of carbohydrates.
Another argument made against sugar, as mentioned above, is derived from the fact of glucose’s toxicity in high concentrations in the bloodstream. But, as Paracelsus said,
“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”
Glucose in high concentrations is poisonous, granted. So is water in high concentrations. So is oxygen. They are essential to survival, but in too high a concentration, they are toxic. That doesn’t mean that we should altogether avoid the intake of water and oxygen. It simply means we shouldn’t inundate the body with these chemicals in a greater quantity than it can effectively regulate and metabolize in the ways that are vital to the functioning its systems.
The takeaway from all this should not be that taking in copious amounts of sugar is healthy or that a fucking all candy-bar diet would be a good idea. Instead, the takeaway should be that sugar, carbohydrates, are an essential part of a healthful diet, and impulsively following prevalent fashions that state sugar is always “bad for you” is an extreme and misguided action. Closer consideration is needed; magazine articles and fad diets cannot provide you with adequate understanding to make truly informed dietary choices. Look deeper into the science. By default, be skeptical of health and diet gurus. Always consult the studies they cite—suspect them, until it is somehow proven to you that their information is valid—of “confirmation bias,” that is, a tendency to view the conclusions of the clinical research they reference in a way that lends the facts to the confirmation of whatever position they have already decided to hold on the topic. Rarely are things as black-and-white as they are presented in our popular ideas about food. Rarely are the answers as simple as they seem. Generally, if the answer appears to be final and does not allow for any exceptions to the rule, the answer is false.