When you lift mammoth amounts of weight or run leg-numbing distances, you don’t really worry about celebrating post-workout by indulging in a hefty shake, a short stack of pancakes, or an ice cream sundae with the works (brownies, fudge, whipped cream, more fudge).
Aesthetics aside, you can elevate your health by limiting how much sugar you’re eating. And don’t freak if you’re an endurance athlete. You can still get fuel-rich carbs—just from a healthier range of foods (these are the 10 best sources of healthy carbs).
Here are the five top health benefits you’ll enjoy if you adopt a low-sugar lifestyle, according to Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., the coordinator of nutrition and team sports dietitian for the San Francisco 49ers:
1. Fewer “crashes”
“Avoiding sugary foods, especially eating them on an empty stomach, can help prevent that ‘crash’ or sluggish feeling caused by hypoglycemia once your body clears the sugar out of your blood,” Mazur says. By eating whole foods and less processed junk, you’ll ride off a steady flow of energy throughout the day rather than experience that dive-bomb sensation.
Research backs it up. “Added dietary sugars can decrease the activity of orexin cells that help our bodies induce wakefulness, increase metabolism, and keep your system operating like a fine-tuned machine,” Mazur says. When orexin cells are turned off or absent, we feel sluggish, which can help explain why you want to nap after a sugar- and carb-heavy meal.
2. Lower body fat
This might be an obvious one, Mazur says, but sugar contributes to weight gain in one major way: Sugar-laden foods are almost always high in calories and fat, but low in fiber and other nutrients, which means there’s nothing to slow how quickly that sugar torpedoes through your body—and then presumably gets stored as fat. Surplus calories lead to weight gain, period. And the more sugar you eat, the more you sugar you crave, since it acts like a drug—lighting up reward centers in your brain.
3. Amplified heart health
Eating loads of added sugars can elevate the amount of triglycerides in your blood, Mazur says. Triglycerides are the fats in your blood that put you at heightened risk for heart disease—so more triglycerides means a weaker ticker.
Fructose, a type of simple sugar often found in sodas and candy, is especially dangerous when it comes to triglyceride levels. Unlike glucose, which your body processes through your liver, fructose doesn’t escape, according to research published in The Journal of Nutrition. As a result, fructose boosts triglyceride levels and elevates bad cholesterol, whereas glucose does not.
4. Fewer cavities
Sorry, boss: Mom was right. “When you eat sugar, a sticky combo of carbs and protein forms on your teeth and traps bacteria, which can wear away tooth enamel,” Mazur says. You can combat the icky buildup by brushing and flossing after eating, drinking, or chomping on any such food, of course, but you can also keep your mouth fresh and cavity-free by limiting the amount of added sugars in your diet.
5. Smoother skin
High-sugar foods may not spur the onset of acne, but they can definitely make it worse. “Sugary foods with a high glycemic index have been found to affect the severity of acne because they trigger hormonal fluctuations,” Mazur explains. For better skin, eat more of these complexion-boosting foods.