Sugar Keeps You From Peak Fitness. Here’s Why.
By Brittney Saline, CrossFit Journal*
When Brent Price started training at CrossFit Vancouver in 2011, he weighed almost 300 lb. at 6 ft. Though he lost 35 lb. in his first six months of CrossFit without changing anything else about his lifestyle, he said that it wasn’t until he began cutting sugar, alcohol and processed foods from his diet more than two years later that he made lasting, significant progress in his fitness.
“Even after I added CrossFit and I started being active, getting over that hurdle of being able to change my diet was really hard,” he said. “I felt really heavy and I felt really slow even though I had definitely made huge gains within CrossFit. I wasn’t at my full capacity.”
As a kid, Price went to school with bottles of Fanta and Sprite in his backpack instead of water.
“I was kinda brought up thinking that that was how you hydrate yourself,” he said.
He continued the habit into adulthood—now adding rum to his Coke—and lived off french fries, pizza, poutine and ice cream. The final blow was dealt at the 2011 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, when he missed The Dead Weather—his favorite band— because he couldn’t cross the festival grounds beneath the blistering California sun in time for the set.
“I kept having to take breaks, and I was out of breath and hot,” he said. “It was a really terrible experience, and I was really defeated … . I came back after that and just went straight into CrossFit Vancouver.”
Within six months, he’d lost 35 lb.—more than he’d ever lost at one time before. Though the scale slowed down after that, Price never thought twice about his diet.
“I felt like I was putting more time into exercise so I didn’t need to put more time into food, so I ate a lot of processed foods and I was still on the sugar wagon,” he said. “But I wouldn’t really feel bad about it. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m CrossFitting. I’m working out really hard. It doesn’t matter.’”
By 2013, he began to suspect something was amiss. He could not do toes-to-bars or pull-ups—even assisted by a band—and “met-cons were still really hard,” he said.
“For me, that was a kind of a visible wake-up call saying, ‘I’ve been doing this long enough that I should have this by now. Where am I going wrong?’ And that’s when I really started to look at the amount of sugar and alcohol that I was intaking.”
“We generally think that weight gain is the unavoidable consequence of consuming too many calories, with fat cells being the passive recipients of that excess,” Dr. David Ludwig, an endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital wrote in his 2016 book “Always Hungry.” “But fat cells do nothing of consequence without specific instructions—certainly not calorie storage and release, their most critical functions.”
The chief instructor? Insulin, Ludwig wrote.
“Insulin’s effects on calorie storage are so potent that we can consider it the ultimate fat cell fertilizer,” he wrote, describing a study in which rats given insulin infusions gained more weight than their counterpart control rats.
“Even when their food was restricted to that of the control animals, they still became fatter,” Ludwig wrote. “If too much insulin drives fat cells to increase in size and number, what drives the pancreas to produce too much insulin? Carbohydrate, specifically sugar and the highly processed starches that quickly digest into sugar.”
Along with a team of six other researchers, Ludwig conducted a similar study with human subjects, in which the researchers studied the effects of a 60, 40 and 10 percent carbohydrate diet—each containing the same number of calories—on 32 18-to-40-year-old men and women with body-mass indexes of 27 (obese) or higher over a seven-month period.
“We found that the participants burned about 325 calories a day more on the low-carbohydrate compared to the high-carbohydrate diet,” Ludwig reported. “The high-carbohydrate diet also had the worst effect on major heart disease risk factors, including insulin resistance, triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol. These results … indicate that all calories are not alike to the body. The type of calories going into the body affects the number of calories going out.”
In other words:
“You cannot exercise away a bad diet,” CrossFit Founder and CEO Greg Glassman said during CrossFit’s “California Invasion: Rally To Fight Big Soda.”
Referencing the most basic presentation of CrossFit’s diet prescription, he added: “The meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, no sugar component is critical.”
The Fruits of Their Labor
In early 2014, Price met with a CrossFitting nutritionist. “We sat down and talked (about) what I was actually doing to myself by continuing to eat sugar and drink pop,” he said, recalling a discussion about the potential for developing Type 2 diabetes down the road. “When you are playing with your blood sugar to that extreme, after (learning) what that could do to you, it was easier for me to make the decision not to have it.”
He swapped sweet cereals for poached eggs in the morning and cut the soda and ice cream altogether. Within a week, he was sleeping better and training harder. He began tracking his macronutrients and doing weekly meal prep.
“It created this environment of the entire day (being) dedicated to health instead of just the hour you spend at the gym,” he said. Today, two years after quitting the sweet stuff, Price (who now trains at Studeo 55 CrossFit) weighs around 200 lb. and recently PR’d his snatch at 190 lb., a 55-lb. improvement from his sugar-laden days.
“One of the things that instantly went up was my snatch because I was able to move faster,” he reported.
He can also comfortably strings muscle-ups together in sets of 10, and last April, he was able to run from stage to stage at Coachella, bare-chested and bursting with self-confidence.
“It was a big day for me to walk in there,” he recalled. “It made me really realize the difference in what a healthy lifestyle can make in everything that you do.”
*This article has been edited for length. You can read the full article here.
About the Author: Brittney Saline contributes to the CrossFit Journal and the CrossFit Games website, and she trains at CrossFit St. Paul. To contact her, visit brittneysaline.com.