For many athletes, the word sugar is synonymous with energy – lollies eaten in a feeding frenzy at the end of a long training ride, the banana before an interval session for a quick energy hit or the sports drinks we rely on to get us through the demands of riding in warm conditions. Yet literally thousands of media reports over the past 12 months have constantly argued that this simple white powder is making us fat. In fact, some sensationalised reports have gone as far as claiming that sugar is poison and should be eliminated from our diets completely. As is often the case when a shocking headline is put forward, there is a little more to the sugar trial than this simplified message, especially for athletes.
Sugar, the white stuff we add to our tea and coffee, is a chemical molecule in which two individual sugars glucose and fructose have linked to form sucrose. We consume numerous simple sugars in natural unprocessed foods including fruit, dairy foods and even vegetables on a daily basis and have done so for hundreds of years. In simple terms, this would suggest that a little sugar from natural sources poses no issue in the diet long-term.
The truth is though, that when it comes to discussing sugar and the potential issues associated with it, we are not talking about fruit. We are talking about far more concentrated doses of sugar found in processed foods, often in conjunction with refined white flour and/or fat; the ingestion of which sends the brain into a drug-like frenzy. And, as is the case with regular drug use, the more of this intensely sweet food that we include in our diet – whether it be in cake, biscuits, ice cream or chocolate – the more we want. Before you know it, you are routinely consuming a large muffin a day in addition to a packet of chocolate biscuits after dinner. These behaviours routinely cause frustration, stress and much food-related anxiety for individuals who are feeling completely out of control with their eating.
Unfortunately, as food processing techniques have advanced and more and more of our favourite cereals, snacks, sauces and yoghurts have sugar added, so too have our palates developed quite a taste for the white stuff. It is not unusual to assess a diet that contains nothing but refined white carbs for the most part of the day. A refined breakfast cereal, oats with added sugar or fruit muesli kick start the day, followed by sweetened tea and coffee, a couple of biscuits and large slices of white bread or wraps prior to the extreme sweet craving which will then kick in at about 3 or 4pm. On the surface the diet appears healthy, but a closer look reveals that every single source of carbohydrate is refined and contains added sugars, which leave blood sugar levels unstable and prone to going low late in the afternoon.
For the average person who spends much of their lives sitting and is constantly battling the gradual weight gain associated with this lifestyle there is no doubt that the somewhat ‘empty’ calories that refined carbohydrates and sugar provide offer little nutritionally. Sure, a couple of pieces of fruit per day are not going to be a major issue, but the constant grazing and reliance on sweet processed food is likely to be causing health issues long-term.
When it comes to an active population though, such as elite athletes or even a recreational sportsperson training an hour more a day, at times it may be feasible to call in some more energy-dense sources of carbohydrate – whether this be sports drink, energy gels, energy bars or more fruit – simply to give the exercising muscles rapidly digested sources of fuel. Simple sugars, whether they are sucrose, glucose or fructose, are digested relatively quickly compared to more complex forms of carbohydrate, taking energy to the muscles rapidly. For athletes completing training or competition sessions that go for longer than 90 minutes, over time, glycogen stores will be depleted which means that a source of rapidly digested carbohydrates will need to be consumed to continue to fuel the muscle. So while a low added sugar diet may be preferable on a day to day basis, there is likely to still be room for simple sugars in the diet of athletes, particularly during competition.
For those individuals keen to keep their sugar intake relatively low on a daily basis, the good news is that it is very easy to eliminate much added sugar and refined carbohydrate from your diet. The most commonly consumed processed and high sugar foods include white bread, sugar added to tea and coffee, cakes, biscuits and chocolates, fruit yoghurt as well as sweet sauces, bars, fruit snacks and juices (fresh fruit is in a different category as it also contains the fibre and bulk missing from refined fruit products). To make the shift away from these sweet foods all you need to do is concentrate on wholegrain carbohydrates, avoid sweet drinks, wean off adding sugar to your food and limit your intake of the processed snack foods such as those mentioned above – if you really look at it, it is simply healthy eating.
If you are one of the many who have been consuming a lot of sugar, perhaps without even realising it, you are likely to have a few withdrawal symptoms – but nothing you will not be able to handle. At worst you may get a headache and find yourself a little grumpy but after just two or three days without any added sugar in your diet you will find yourself feeling more energised and free from the cravings to which you have been a slave for so long. Then if you are training regularly, you will be able to use your sugars wisely, so they actually support your performance and recovery without negatively impacting your health from being overconsumed on a daily basis.