Is Sugar Bad for Muscle Growth?

You probably know that, when you're working out to increase muscle growth, you need to eat more calories to increase muscle size. But that doesn't mean you get to eat anything you want. Candy and bodybuilding, for example, aren't a good mix for increasing mass and may be bad for your health.

Instead of a sugary post-workout drink, make a high-protein shake sweetened with a banana. (Image: Arx0nt/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Sugar isn't necessarily bad for muscle growth, but it may not provide your body with the nutrition it needs for muscle building. And eating too much candy before lifting can cause abdominal distress.

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

When talking about sugar and health, or more specifically, sugar and muscle growth, it's important to distinguish between natural sugar and added sugar, because they shouldn't be viewed or treated equally. When you read food labels with the intent of reducing consumption of foods that are high in sugar, you may be omitting healthy foods for the wrong reasons.

Natural sugars are those naturally present in healthy foods, such as fructose and lactose. You may want to return that carton of milk to the shelf when you see its nutrition facts label showing 13 grams of sugar, but this sugar comes with nutrients for good health, including protein, calcium and potassium. And though most carbohydrates in fruits come from sugar, fruits are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that improve bowel function and protect you from chronic disease.

On the other hand, added sugars are just that — sugar that's been added to food by you or by food manufacturers. This may include the table sugar you stir into your morning coffee or the sugar in your bottle of salad dressing.

How to Find Added Sugar

You have to be a savvy shopper to find added sugar in food. If you're trying to limit added sugar in your diet, read the ingredients list before you add the item to your cart.

Ingredients that may indicate added sugar include:

  • Sucrose
  • Maltose
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Fruit juice, concentrated
  • High-fructose corn syrup

How Much Is OK?

It doesn't matter what type of diet you follow or how much you work out, you need to limit your intake of added sugar. Too much added sugar may make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight and may increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, according to Harvard Health Publishing, too much added sugar in your diet may increase your risk of dying from heart disease even if you're at a healthy weight.

How much of the sweet stuff you can have depends on your gender. According to the American Heart Association, women should limit their daily intake of added sugar to no more than 100 calories a day and men to no more than 150 calories a day. This translates into no more than 20 grams of added sugar for women and 38 grams for men.

Nutrition for Muscle Growth

Bench presses, dead lifts and crunches give your muscles a hefty workout, but you won't make any gains if you're not paying attention to your nutrition. For muscle growth, you need to eat a healthy balanced diet that supplies your body with enough calories, carbs, protein and fat to support muscle building.

Muscle growth requires energy, which comes from calories. Depending on the intensity of your workouts, you may need anywhere from 16 to 30 calories per pound. So if you weigh 200 pounds, you may need 3,200 to 6,000 calories a day. That may sound as though you should be able to eat all the junk you want, but candy and bodybuilding don't usually equal muscle growth. Instead, focus on getting those extra calories from nutrient-rich sources of carbs, protein and fat.

Nutrient-Rich Carbs for Energy

When it comes to your macros for bodybuilding, most of your calories should come from carbs. Your body needs carbs to support energy for your workouts and also to prevent your body from burning your muscle for fuel. Your exact carb needs may vary, but you should aim for 45 to 65 percent of your calories from this energy-producing nutrient.

The International Society for Sports Nutrition recommends that most of your carbs come from healthy nutrient-rich sources such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables and legumes. They also note that you should limit your use of added sugars to when you've depleted your energy stores and need a quick refill, such as mile 13 of your 26-mile marathon.

A 2019 meta-analysis study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews investigated the effects of simple carbohydrates (aka sugar) on mood and energy and found that sugar decreased energy levels and alertness. Nothing ruins a workout faster than not having the energy to continue. So get the carbs that prevent muscle loss from healthy carbs like bananas, apples or yogurt — not that candy bar from the vending machine.

Protein and Muscle Growth

Your bodybuilding diet also needs a protein and fat balance. Like carbs, protein needs may vary depending on workout intensity and goals. In general, for muscle gain, you may need 0.63 to 1.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day, which ranges from 126 to 272 grams for a 200-pound person.

The more intense your workout, the greater the protein needs — about 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories. See a dietitian or your doctor for help determining how much protein you need for the muscle gains you're seeking.

Fat and Muscle Growth

And don't be concerned about fat in your diet. Fat has its place too. In fact, according to ISSN, getting at least 30 percent of your daily calories from fat helps improve levels of testosterone, a male hormone that plays a pivotal role in muscle growth. Fat from your diet also supplies essential fatty acids like omega-3s, as well as fat-soluble vitamins. Both support health and may play important roles in muscle development.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods such as salmon, tuna and walnuts, have anti-inflammatory properties and may help support muscle recovery. These fatty acids are also good for your heart.

Pre-Workout Meals

It's well-known in the fitness community that you need to make smart food choices before and after your workout to make the most gains. Your pre-workout meal, which should be consumed about two to four hours before you hit the gym, should be low in fat and contain a healthy mix of carbs and protein. This meal provides your body with both the carbs you need for energy and the protein for muscle growth.

Healthy options for your pre-workout meal include:

  • Yogurt and banana
  • Cereal and milk
  • Grilled chicken sandwich

Sugar Pre-Workout

If you're short on time to eat before your workout, you may opt for something that digests quickly. But candy and bodybuilding aren't good companions.

Consuming juice, soda or candy bars causes a rapid rise in blood sugar and then a sudden drop. So no extra energy for your workout.

Plus, excess sugar in your digestive system draws fluids from the rest of your body, possibly affecting hydration and causing abdominal distress, such as nausea, cramping or diarrhea. Instead, for a quick snack before lifting, try an easily digested carb with a low-fat protein, such as whole-grain toast with low-fat cheese.

Post-Workout Meal

Possibly more important than your pre-workout meal is your post-workout meal, which you should consume within two hours of your workout. Be sure to get a mix of carbs and protein to replenish energy and support muscle healing and growth.

Healthy options for your post-workout meal include:

  • Glass of chocolate milk
  • Grilled chicken and baked potato
  • Peanut butter and crackers

Sugar Post-Workout

Like your pre-workout meal, added sugar post-workout may not quite have the effects you're looking for. In addition to not providing your body with the nutrients it needs for good health, sugar post-workout may affect recovery.

A 2018 clinical study published in PLoS One compared the effects of eating a banana versus drinking sugar water after intense exercise. While both helped restore energy levels, athletes who ate a banana had better overall recovery and less inflammation. The researchers noted that it was the unique combination of natural nutrients in the banana that had the added benefits for the muscles.

When it comes to your post-workout meal, keep it high in nutrition so you get the most benefits and muscle growth.

Satisfying Your Bodybuilding Sweet Tooth

Most diets fail because they're too restrictive. The same can be true when you're too strict on your weight-training diet. While nutrition is very important when you're trying to build muscle, you don't have to follow a no-sugar bodybuilding diet to get the results you want. In fact, it may set you up for failure when you place too many restrictions on what you can and can't eat — leading to binge eating.

Planning ahead can help you stay on track and allow you the occasional sweet treat while you follow your healthy, nutritious weight-training diet. Knowing your daily macro needs, including how much sugar you can have — 20 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men — can help you plan how to incorporate your sweet treats into your daily meal plan. Read the food labels of your favorite treats so you can figure out how to fit them in, for example:

  • Two peanut butter cups: 21 grams of sugar
  • Two chocolate chip cookies (1 ounce): 12 grams of sugar
  • 1/2 cup of vanilla ice cream: 14 grams of sugar
  • One bottle of cola (16 ounces): 49 grams of sugar

Remember to enjoy your sweet treat several hours before you work out so it doesn't lead to abdominal distress.

Sweet and Nutritious

You can also use fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth without sacrificing nutrition. Make a fresh fruit salad and top it with whipped cream, which has less than 1 gram of sugar per tablespoon. Blend frozen bananas to make a creamy, healthy ice cream, adding peanut butter for flavor and protein. Grill pineapple or peaches and serve with mascarpone cheese.

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