Heap of Sugar Cubes Isolated on White Background.

Sugar or Subs? Everything you need to know about how to manage sugars.

Sugar, the sweet, sweet…sweetness of life. The nutrient that gives us that much needed boost at times but can also give our waistline a not so needed boost. It is found in just about every food out there, processed or natural, so knowing how to work with it in your diet is like knowing how to deal with leglocks. They are out there and can really ruin your day, but, with a little know how, you can manage them and know how to work around it. Sugar consumption in America is astonishing, and because of this, if you look around, you will see more out of shape individuals rather than the opposite. And when you find those fit individuals, I will bet dollars to donuts (lots of sugar) that one of the keys to their success is limiting their sugar consumption. Did you catch that though? “Limiting” not eliminating sugar necessarily because as jiu-jitsu athletes, we burn through tons of calories, and more importantly, the energy stored within our bodies. Where do you think a lot of those energy stores come from? You guessed it, carbohydrates! Oh wait, and sugar because sugar is in fact a carbohydrate that our smart bodies break down into glucose which all of the cells in our body uses for energy. Grab some sugar for a little energy boost because we are about to dig deep into the source of our energy and gain a better understanding of which sugars are bad, which are good, and how sugar substitutes hold up.

What is sugar?

Sugar in a simple term is a carbohydrate used as a source of food energy. There are natural sugars such as sugar beet

Sugarcane in farm with blue sky in Thailand

and cane sugar which are plants that are harvested and refined into the white sugar you typically think of when you hear or read “sugar.” There are also sugars found elsewhere in the foods we eat that are not processed and refined in factories. To understand sugar in a less simple way, sugar can be broken down into two groups, monosaccharides and disaccharides- mono meaning “one” would be sugars that are a single unit of sugar and disaccharides are compounds consisting of two monosaccharides.

Monosaccharides: The most common ones found are;

Glucose: aka “blood sugar.” This is what our bodies break sugar and carbohydrates into and which gives us energy…or fat rolls. Found in fruits, vegetables, table sugar, honey, milk products, and cereals.

Fructose: The main sugar found in fruits, vegetables and sweeteners.

Galactose: A sugar found in milk, some vegetables and certain cheeses.


Sucrose: (Glucose+Fructose) Also known as “table sugar” which is what is found in all of that junk food, soda, etc. But also found in some fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Lactose: (Glucose+Galactose) Milk sugar that is found in dairy and sometimes in cereals, baked goods, and salad dressings.

Maltose: (Glucose+Glucose) Malt sugar which is found in breads, breakfast cereals, and cooked sweet potatoes! Formed when starches are fermented by yeast or enzymes.

When looking at food labels, if an ingredients ends in “ose”, it is not showing you respect but instead showing you that it is a type of sugar.

How our body breaks down our sugary opponent.

Ok, it is time to accept that we will be consuming sugar in some shape or form. Let that sink in, take a deep breath, and let’s move forward and use our jiu-jitsu mastermind and figure out how we can utilize the cards we are dealt. Our bodies know we will eat sugar, and they actually need us to consume sugar because we gain energy stores from it. It all starts with digestion. Sugars needs to be digested and absorbed because we can gain that full energy boost. Enzymes in our stomach break sugars down into two monosaccharides, fructose and glucose. Those are absorbed into our bloodstream in our intestines and from there the glucose is used as energy and the fructose is sent to our liver. Our livers convert fructose into glucose which is then used as energy yet again! The liver is like a doorman at a club. He regulates how much glucose is allowed into the party so that there is a continuous stream of energy based on our bodies’ needs. So, when we are out training hard, our livers are pumping out a steady flow of glucose into our cells for energy. Jiu-jitsu is a long endurance work out so you can see how we can deplete our stores of energy, and our bodies need a bit of sugar post training to get back to equilibrium.

The pains and gains of sugar

When we consume sugar, our body has two options for it: turn glucose into glycogen that is stored in our liver and muscles for energy or check if our organs and muscles are at capacity and thus converts the glucose into fatty acids and then into triglycerides to use later…AKA fat. So the amount in which we exercise is an indicator on how much sugar we can have without getting fat. So simply put..

If you are consuming more sugar than your body needs for your energy levels then it will be stored as fat. You don’t put more gas in your car than the tank will hold, so why put more sugar in your body than you need?

So wait…everything contains sugar?

So, sugars are found in natural foods such as fruits and vegetables. That is all fine and dandy. These sugars are unavoidable and are primarily the good ones to be consuming. So, what are the other ones that can be found on food labels so we know that what we are eating container sugar? Well there is a plethora of them because the FDA requires that nutritional labels show the more prominent ingredients first in the list and if they break down sugars by name and spread them out between multiple ingredient names, the items show up later in the list of ingredients and are not noticed as being “prominent” and high in sugar. So keep an eye out for these names on your food labels: agave nectar, brown sugar, cane sugar, cane crystals, corn syrup, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose,

Selection of food high in sugar, copy space

dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, and syrup. Wow, that is a lot sugar.

That being said, natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are your number one option when it comes to getting your needed sugar intake but aim to consume low glycemic fruits and vegetables so you can eat them in moderation and regulate your intake in smaller doses. Go with whole fruits over juices because the juices are essentially sugar water since the process eliminates beneficial fibers and nutrients.

Sugar Subs

So, you are scared to death of sugar and you might be thinking “Oh well, I’ve heard that eating sugar substitutes instead of regular sugar is better for you.” Well, again, aim for natural fruits and vegetables to get your sugars but if you can, surely work in some of these substitutes into your diet instead of regular processed and refined devil sugars.


A good all around substitute because besides just having fructose and glucose, it has added minerals and nutrients.With a balance of fructose and glucose, honey is a good slow burner sugar that will give you a continual boost rather than give you a spike of blood sugar levels.

Agave Nectar

Is not as good as you think it is. It is processed and refined just the same as cane sugar and comes with a 90:10 ratio of fructose to glucose. A lot of sugar for your liver to process versus a lot of readily available energy.


Natural sweetener from the sunflower family that is about 300 times sweeter than table sugar. With that, it has allegedly low effects on blood glucose levels. A worthy substitute but does has a chemically taste to it.

Maple Syrup

This is a personal favorite because organic maple syrup is packed with 50 different antioxidants and other good flavors. It is also low glycemic and won’t cause any major sugar level spikes. Did I mention it is delicious too?


It is in “diet” foods so it is better for you, right? Well, anything made in a lab usually comes with risks and there are a lot of fears of cancer out there when it comes to aspartame, so I would air on the side of caution and just rule this one out.


Calorie free, that is good, right? It also happens to be about 600 times as sweet as regular sugar so a little goes a very long way. This is what is found in most of our protein powders and in Splenda. The luxury is that because it is so sweet you need very little, which is good, but it does not give a great boost as far as glucose levels, just flavor.

How to gain sugar control

Cooking and baking without sugar might be a struggle for some people because a recipe calls for sugar, but can I just add the same amount of the substitute? This would not go over well for

a senior man in kitchen using digital tablet

instance if you add the same amount of sucralose instead of sugar seeing as it is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Also, the compounds are different and you do not want to give yourself early onset diabetes. So here are a few tips when substituting for sugar.

Honey: ¾ tbsp for every 1 tbsp of sugar

Stevia: ? tsp for every 1 tbsp of sugar

Maple Syrup: ¾ tbsp for every 1 tbsp sugar

Other alternatives: In some baking and cooking applications, omit the sugar and use dried berries or applesauce. For beverages and smoothies, use citrus or cinnamon instead of sugars to give a depth of flavor.


Sugars are not necessarily our worst enemy; we are our own worst enemy. So by choosing where you get your energy from and how much you get, you can limit your sugar intake so that you are getting a constant burn of energy rather than having an excess and creating a bunch of fat. We as jiu-jitsu practitioners use a lot of our energy up, and it is best to have our sugar after we train to replenish and then go from there rather than try and get a boost before training. Over time you can get intune with your body and feel when your glycogen levels are low and know “Hey, maybe I need to eat an apple before class.” Until then, be smart, use sparingly, and read the labels! Also make sure you read some articles and recipes on grapplergourmet.com then you can truly eat well and train hard. Oss.


MacKenzie Arrington is an award-winning chef based in Buffalo, NY. Off the mats, he is the team chef for a professional sports team, runs a healthy meal prep company and is a culinary knifemaker. On the mats, he is a purple belt out of Lake Effect Martial Arts - Checkmat Buffalo. Connect with MacKenzie on Instagram.

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