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You have heard that sugar is an easy way to add calories to your diet when you want to gain weight for physique or performance goals. However, you worry that added sugar can have drawbacks in terms of health.
So, can you eat sugar while bulking? Yes, you can eat sugar while bulking. A moderate amount of sugars can be a great way to add the extra calories needed for a calorie surplus to gain weight. As well, eating sugar at the right times can assist in workout performance and recovery.
With that said, there’s many different types of sugars, and whether it’s okay or not to consume during a bulk largely depends on how much you eat and your overall nutrition.
In this article, I will cover:
- Common types of sugar
- The impacts of sugar on body composition
- The best time to eat sugar when bulking
- Potential drawbacks of eating sugar and strategies to overcome them
At the end, you will have a thorough understanding and a complete guide to eating sugar while bulking.
Common Types of Sugar
At the most basic level, sugars are a subset of carbohydrates and therefore one of the key macronutrients along with protein and fat.
Carbohydrates are considered either simple or complex, depending on the length of the molecule. Sugars are called “simple carbs” or “quick carbs” and split into monosaccharides (containing one molecule) or disaccharides (containing two molecules).
Carbohydrates with only one (mono) molecule are called monosaccharides. Because they only have one molecule they cannot be broken down any further and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream. This is where the name “quick carbs” comes from.
Glucose is the most abundant monosaccharide. It is made by plants and it is the most important source of energy for ALL organisms. Glucose is naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables and it can also be refined and added to other products.
Carbohydrates with two molecules are called disaccharides. They are combinations of the monosaccharides above.
Sucrose (glucose + fructose)
Sucrose is produced naturally in plants and is extracted from sugarcane or sugar beet to be refined into white sugar or what is commonly known as table sugar. It is this refined sugar that has a poor reputation for its link to health problems.
When you eat naturally-occuring sugars in their original plant form, you are also getting fiber, water, small amounts of other macronutrients (protein and fat), and other micronutrients. It is the refining process that strips all of these elements away leaving only the pure sugar, devoid of other nutrients, that causes people to call these “empty calories.”
But, there is a place for these calories in a bulking diet, without fear of displacing other nutrients. How and when to include added sugar will be covered later.
Lactose (glucose + galactose)
Lactose is the natural form of sugar found in milk and other dairy products.
Maltose (glucose + glucose)
Maltose is also known as malt sugar. It is formed when grains germinate (sprout) and is part of the fermentation process for certain alcohols including malt liquors and beer.
Other Names for Sugar
Beyond the six forms of sugar above, there can be dozens of different names for sugar. Seeing “ose” at the end of a word is often a clue that it’s describing something that is a form of sugar or starch. Dextrose, maltose, and mannose are examples.
Sugar can also be added via a sugar-containing food like honey, maple syrup, or molasses.
Sugar is also added to foods via “nectars”, juices, or syrups:
- Agave nectar
- Brown rice syrup
- Coconut nectar
- Concentrated white grape juice
- Corn syrup / HFCS high-fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Tapioca syrup
Many products, especially those marketed as “natural” or “organic” will use several of these sweeteners in combination.
Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order by volume. While no one sweetener might be near the beginning of the list, adding them together could mean that sweeteners in total are one of the most abundant ingredients.
This can help you identify added sugars on food labels and give you ideas of how you can add sugars to your diet while bulking.
Is Sugar Okay For Bulking?
Yes, sugar is very helpful for bulking because it provides an easy, inexpensive source of calories that can be easily consumed and digested in a low volume of food.
Related Article: 15 Cheap Carbs for Bulking (That Are Still Good For You)
When gaining weight it is a good idea to focus on foods that are calorie-dense, meaning that they provide a high number of calories for a small amount of food. This will allow you to eat more food without feeling uncomfortably full.
Sugar is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream with minimal digestive effort. This decreases satiety and also the thermic effect of eating (the calories expended to digest food). These two factors are very helpful for a calorie surplus.
Sugar also dissolves easily in liquids, meaning it can be easy to consume as part of a drink. Drinking calories can be easier and less demanding than trying to chew and eat calories from solid foods during or immediately after a workout. I’ll cover sugar and workouts, next.
Are you bulking properly?
Does Sugar Affect Muscle Growth or Recovery?
Sugar is a common ingredient in sports recovery drinks like Gatorade, and for good reason: sugar consumption blunts cortisol, the hormone that is released in times of stress, such as the training stress from a hard workout.
Cortisol has catabolic effects, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue. So, “turning off” cortisol by ingesting sugar puts the brakes on breaking down muscle tissue.
At the same time, ingesting sugar prompts the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin is a key hormone for allowing the uptake of nutrients into cells. This allows the sugar in the bloodstream to replenish stored carbohydrates (glycogen) in the muscles and liver.
It also allows protein (broken down into amino acids in the bloodstream) to be used for muscle protein synthesis (building new muscle tissue).
This is why we generally recommend a ratio of 2:1 carbs to protein for intra- (during exercise) and post-workout nutrition. For extremely strenuous sessions, this can be as much as 4:1 carbs to protein.
Does Sugar Cause Fat Gain?
Gaining weight is a matter of energy balance, that is to say, looking at the total number of calories coming in from the foods you eat, compared to the total number of calories going out from activity and exercise. It does not matter whether the calories coming in are from foods with or without sugar.
This means that excess calories from any source can contribute to fat gain, but also to muscle gain.
Usually, the goal with bulking is to maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain. The process of muscle gain is not 100% efficient, which means that at least some portion of weight gain from a calorie surplus will be adipose tissue (fat), and some will be lean body mass/fat-free mass (muscle).
In general, the weight gain experienced from a calorie surplus is 33-40% fat-free mass and 60-67% fat gain. This means that for every 5lbs gained, 3lbs would be fat and 2lbs would be muscle. This is helpful information to have in terms of expectations for a bulking cycle.
The top predictor of fat-free mass gain is the anabolic signal created by resistance training. This means training hard enough, long enough, and often enough to elicit adaptations in the body – the training response. A progressive resistance training program is generally the best source of this stimulus.
Further, a study at California State University showed that the weight gain and fat-free mass gains experienced during a resistance training program while taking high-calorie supplements were essentially the same regardless of the source of the calories in those supplements.
It is important to note that protein intake has to be adequate to allow for muscle protein synthesis. This was a minimum of 15% of dietary intake coming from protein.
How Much Sugar Can You Have If You’re Bulking?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 tsp (25g) per day for women and 9 tsp (36g) for men.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a limit of no more than 5-10% of total daily energy intake coming from added sugars. For an individual who is bulking and consuming 4,000 calories per day, this would mean 200-400 calories, or 50-100g of added sugar (up to 25 tsp).
It is important to keep in mind that these guidelines were developed when considering health for the general population, and not necessarily with the needs of performance athletes in mind.
Individuals looking to gain mass and exercising intensely, as recommended above to maximize muscle gain, may need to exceed these recommendations for sugar intake.
Overall, it is recommended that endurance athletes consume a high-carbohydrate diet of 8-10g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per day, noting that a high-carbohydrate diet may be necessary for optimal adaptations to training. A range of 5-7g/kg/day is recommended for general training needs.
For lower-sugar options on non-training days, check out:
- How To Gain Weight Without Eating Sugar (Sample Meal Plan)
- Top 10 Foods High In Calories But Low In Sugar
Best Time To Eat Sugar When Bulking
The best time to eat sugar while bulking is during (intra) and immediately after (post) workout.
As stated previously, we generally recommend a ratio of 2:1 carbs to protein for intra- (during exercise) and post-workout nutrition.
During intense training sessions lasting an hour or more:
Make or buy a workout drink that has 30-45g of quick-digesting carbohydrates (check out these products: dextrose, glucose or maltodextrin, which are common choices) and 15g of protein (such as whey isolate) in 500-600mL of water for each hour of workout time.
A 2:1 glucose to fructose carb makeup is ideal during exercise. Sip on this steadily during exercise.
These simple sugars in water are recommended during exercise. Whole food sources are not generally practical nor well-tolerated, as it’s hard to chew and swallow solid foods while exercising, and this often leads to digestive distress.
For post-workout nutrition:
As above, make or buy a workout drink that has 30-45g of quick-digesting carbohydrates and 15g of protein (such as whey isolate) in 500-600mL of water.
Delaying post-workout nutrition by as little as a few hours decreases muscle glycogen storage and protein synthesis. The “window of gains” (also called the “anabolic window”) is open widest immediately post-workout when the body is primed to most effectively and efficiently use nutrients.
Insulin sensitivity is highest at this time, meaning the body is quick to respond to the hormone and take nutrients from the bloodstream into the cells.
Most workout or energy drinks available on the market contain either carbs or protein in water, but not both.
- Add carb powder to a protein drink like Protein2O 15g Whey Protein Infused Water (which already has 15g of protein); or
- Add a protein isolate powder to a carb drink like Gatorade (45g carbs in a 710mL bottle or 36g carbs in a 591mL bottle).
Ready-made protein drinks generally do not have 2:1 carbs to protein on their own. One possibility is Orgain Organic Nutritional Shake (16g of protein and 32g of carbs including 11g of added sugar), but it also has 7g of fat added.
Consequences of Eating Too Much Sugar While Bulking
We saw that sugar does not have a negative impact on body composition compared to surplus calories from other sources. So, this means that any negative effects are limited to psychological and/or physiological impacts such as the possibility of “sugar addiction,” decline in certain health markers, and displacing other nutrients in the diet.
The current research is unclear as to whether sugar is truly addictive in the way that nicotine or certain illicit drugs can be addictive, with dangerous withdrawal effects when consumption is stopped.
However, sugar and high-calorie foods in general do produce increases in the “feel-good” chemical dopamine – a “reward” in the brain. After repeated exposure to the same food, the same level of dopamine is no longer released, meaning that larger and/or more frequent servings are required to get the same reward.
The risk is that eating more added sugar during a bulk will condition the brain and body to want more and more sugar, which can be especially hard to manage when returning to maintenance calories or switching to a calorie deficit for a cut.
However, most of these studies looked at hyperpalatable foods – foods with a combination of high sugar AND high fat, and often added salt, as well, rather than sugar by itself.
You’ll notice that we DO NOT recommend including sugar in a bulking diet in the form of cookies, cakes, chocolate bars, and other foods that are easy to overeat.
Too much added sugar is linked to negative health outcomes including:
- Increased risk of heart disease: high sugar intake is linked to inflammation, increased blood pressure and elevated triglycerides, which are all risks for heart disease. The good news is that regular exercise has a protective effect against high blood pressure.
- Increased risk of diabetes: high sugar intake can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels and when its function is compromised, it can be a precursor to developing diabetes. Our recommendation to limit added sugars to during and immediately after training takes advantage of improved insulin sensitivity in these timeframes. Exercise is considered very powerful in counteracting insulin resistance.
A final concern when it comes to added sugar is that these “empty calories” will push out (displace) calories coming from sources that provide more micronutrients.
For example, drinking sugar-sweetened water instead of a piece of fruit will not provide the fiber and micronutrients in the fruit.
This is a legitimate concern during a cut, when restricting calories to achieve a deficit means that eating sugar would require not eating another source of carbs such as a whole food like an apple.
However, during a bulk, the extra calories from sugar are additive and do not replace whole food sources of carbohydrates such as fruits (e.g. mango, oranges, grapes), vegetables (e.g. yams) and whole grains (e.g. rice, oats, barley, wheat, rye).
Related Article: Eating 5000 Calorie A Day And NOT Gaining Weight (5 Reasons)
Is Artificial Sweetener Better Than Sugar While Bulking?
No, artificial sweetener is not better than sugar while bulking. Artificial sweeteners do not provide the calories needed to achieve a calorie surplus for mass gain and they do not provide fuel for energy during exercise or to replenish muscle glycogen stores after exercise.
Rules To Follow When Eating Sugar During A Bulk
Step 1: Determine Calorie Needs
Determine your calorie needs for bulking. Use an easy online calculator like this one. Input your age, sex, height, current weight and activity level and press Calculate.
For example, a 34-year old 175lbs male who is 5’10” and trains intensely 6-7 times per week has 3,000 calories for maintenance.
Add 10-20% calories to that total for bulking, e.g. 300-600 calories for a daily total of 3,300-3,600 calories.
In order to log your calories accurately, I recommend using the app Macro Factor. This calorie counting app has the largest verified food database, making it a very accurate resource to use when you are counting your calories.
Step 2: Determine Macronutrient Needs
Determine how many of the total calories will come from each of the macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates (including sugar), and fat.
We saw that protein intake needs to be at least 15% of total calories for adding muscle mass.
A general guideline for athletes is to consume 1.2 – 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. In the case of desired mass gain, this can be based on goal body weight as opposed to current body weight. Protein ideally can provide up to 35% of total daily calories.
- A 175lbs male who would like to weigh 225lbs should eat 225 grams of protein per day, providing 900 calories (25% of 3,600).
- An hour of intense training would include 15g during the workout and 15g after the workout, leaving 195g of protein to consume during the rest of the day.
- If there are five meals/snacks outside of the training window, this is an average of 39g of protein at each meal or snack.
For ideas on these meals and snacks, check out: 30 Ways To Increase Protein Intake Without Protein Powder.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. For general training needs, we saw the recommended range of 5-7g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day. This is in keeping with the guidelines that an active person would look to have ~40-60% of calories coming from carbohydrates.
- A 175lbs male who would like to weigh 225lbs should eat 475 grams of carbohydrates per day, providing 1,900 calories (53% of 3,600).
- An hour of intense training would include 30-45g of sugar during the workout and 30-45g of sugar after the workout, leaving 385-415g of carbohydrates to consume during the rest of the day.
- If there are five meals/snacks outside of the training window, this is an average of 77-83g of carbohydrates at each meal or snack.
- Note that this is nearly exactly 2x the 39g of protein for each meal or snack, lining up with our recommendation of 2:1 carbs to protein. That article includes 8 meal examples.
The remaining calories for the day come from fats. At a minimum, fat intake should be at least 20% of total calories, especially for hormonal health for women. If this minimum is not met, reduce carbohydrate intake so that minimum fat intake can be met.
- A 175lbs male who would like to weigh 225lbs eats 3,600 calories per day
- 900 from protein (225g); 25% of total calories
- 1,900 from carbohydrates (475g); 53% of total calories
- 800 from fat (89g); 22% of total calories
Step 3: Consider Added Sugar Relative to Carbohydrates
Deduct the sugar from the training drinks to determine the carbohydrate needs from whole food sources for the remainder of the day.
As we saw in the example, the added sugar in drinks during and after training can still be accommodated within the carbohydrate total for the day.
On non-training days, limit added sugars to a maximum of 25g (women) and 36g (men).
High-calorie carbohydrate sources without sugar:
Step 4: Prepare Workout Drinks
Plan and shop for the necessary ingredients for your intra- and post-workout drinks, including the carb and protein powders noted. Preparation is key. It’s why we have the saying:
“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
These drinks are 30-45g of carbs and 15g of protein in 500-600mL of water. A ratio of 2:1 glucose to fructose was considered ideal, but a single source carb powder is also perfectly reasonable.
Step 5: Train Hard & Prosper
Follow your planned progressive resistance training program. This provides the stimulus for your body to increase muscle mass, when supported by proper nutrition. Fuel during and replenish after your workouts with your prepared workout drinks.
Step 6: Track & Assess Progress
Give yourself time to implement your new way of eating and to see the results.
Set a regular interval to weigh yourself and to take measurements and photos, if physique change is important to you.
Keep track of your performance in the gym if mass gain is desired for improved performance.
If you are eating the higher amount of calories but not seeing the progress you want, it’s possible that the original estimate of your maintenance calories was too low, and/or your new higher intake is allowing you to train more intensely and thereby burn more calories.
This means you need to eat even more to achieve an energy surplus for mass gain. Add more calories and repeat steps 2-6 again.
Have a FeastGood Nutrition Coach help you get results faster than trying to stick it out alone
Added sugars have a key role to play in assisting optimal adaptations to training for increased muscle mass. These carbohydrates play a key role in muscle growth and recovery. They are an inexpensive and easy source of calories to achieve a calorie surplus during a bulk.
What To Read Next
Learn more about whether these high sugar foods are good or bad for bodybuilding:
- Is Diet Soda Good or Bad For Bodybuilding?
- Is Dark Chocolate Good or Bad For Bodybuilding?
- Are Donuts Good or Bad For Bodybuilding?
- Is Nutella Good or Bad For Bodybuilding?
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.