The Role of Sugar in Sports Nutrition
Everyone knows certain sugars can negatively affect our body. We see it on TV, we read it online and we hear about it in the gym. From candy to cookies, ice cream to yogurt and soda to sports drinks, we can all list the types of sugar we should AVOID, but what about the ones we need?
To demystify the role sugar plays in the life and body of an athlete, let’s explore this complicated carbohydrate from top to bottom: why we need it, where to find it and what to watch out for.
Why Do We Need Sugar?
Despite the many positives of “anti-sugar” public health campaigns, one negative is that people seem to have forgotten our body’s need for natural sugar. This confusion makes sense, as many of us spend our entire lives viewing sugar as an enemy of health and nutrition, rather than an ally.
The truth is, natural sugars serve a vital function in our body: they provide us energy. As a crystalline carbohydrate, sugar is converted by our body into glucose, which we use as fuel. It is this fuel that provides our brain and muscles with the stamina they need to persevere through workouts.
How Much Do We Actually Need?
This is an important question that surprisingly few people know the real answer to. We know not to have “too much” sugar, but how much is too much?
According to the American Heart Association, the average man should consume around nine teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar per day, while the average woman should consume six teaspoons (25 grams).
For context, the average American actually consumes a whopping 77 grams of sugar per day. If you’re doing the math, this is double and triple the recommended amount, respectively, for each gender.
Now that you know the numbers, does that mean you should just eat any kind of sugar as long as you keep below the recommended amount? The answer comes down to the difference between natural and added sugars:
Natural Sugars and Where To Find Them
The key to achieving a healthy sugar intake is understanding the difference between natural and added sugar. Whether your goal is weight loss, better nutrition or less reliance on sweets, it is this distinction that will set you on the right path.
Our body metabolizes naturally occurring sugars in the same way as added sugars, but natural sugars are a far healthier form of sugar consumption. Unlike sources of added sugars, natural options are often accompanied by fiber and other nutrients, vitamins and minerals that provide nutritional benefits in addition to energy.
So what are the best sources of natural sugars?
The classic option for natural sugars, fruits provide fuel in addition to a wide variety of nutrients including potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, dietary fiber, iron, magnesium and more.
When looking for fruit to incorporate into your diet, it is best to stick to whole fruits like:
- Grapefruit: lowers cholesterol and insulin levels; can enhance weight loss
- Avocado: low carbs and high in healthy fats
- Blueberries: very high in antioxidants; benefits immune system
- Apples: improves digestion; very rich in fiber, vitamin C and potassium
- Bananas: high in potassium and fiber
While there are, of course, many other kinds of healthy fruit, the key is choosing options that provide you health benefits and flavors you can enjoy.
Note: Just because something has “fruit” in the name does not make it healthy nor a strong source of natural sugars. Fruit juices and dried fruits often have high amounts of added sugars, leading to higher caloric contents and less nutritional value.
Everyone knows veggies are good for you. They provide your body high levels of proteins, vitamins and minerals, perfectly complement healthy meals and can fill you up quickly.
However, many athletes don’t consider veggies when they look for healthy sugar sources, as they typically contain less sugar than fruit, but they are a great way to give your muscles the fuel they need.
Vegetables with healthy levels of sugars include:
- Carrots: great source of beta carotene, fiber and antioxidants
- Beets: high in fiber, potassium and manganese; may help blood pressure and inflammation
- Sweet Potatoes: very high in vitamin A; can lower bad cholesterol and help heart health
- Pumpkin: high in potassium and vitamin C; may help regulate blood pressure and lower chances of diabetes
- Butternut Squash: high in vitamin A and antioxidants; high water content helps hydration
Added Sugar: Hiding in Plain Sight
As athletes, we try our best to stick to a lifestyle of healthy eating that follows dietary guidelines. In addition to our physical activity, we make our best effort to limit the harmful things that enter our body. Added sugars, of course, fall into this category.
We all know that added sugars are bad for us, but do we really know why? The answer might be more complicated than you think:
Added sugars are added to food during the processing stage and are designed to give foods a sweet, and often addicting, flavor. In addition to flavor, added sugars/artificial sweeteners are used to preserve foods, add texture, create appealing colors and balance acidity.
Under the disguise of names like high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, agave syrup and more, many people consume far more of these sugars than they realize. This excess consumption is directly linked to health issues such as high blood sugar, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, skin issues like acne, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Here are some popular foods that often trick athletes with sneaky-high levels of unhealthy, added sugars:
A popular pre, mid and post-workout snack, granola bars are often processed and contain higher levels of sugar (up to 15 grams) than their marketing and packing would lead you to believe.
Like granola bars, there are healthy yogurts with lower levels of sugar. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for some popular brands that pump their “healthy” yogurt full of levels of sugar (up to 20 grams) that make this snack a dessert in disguise.
Everyone knows children’s cereals are loaded with sugar, but did you know that some “healthier,” adult options are as well?
Try to avoid cereal options that use refined grains, as these options are typically much higher in added sugars and sweeteners.
A popular gym favorite, premade smoothies often betray us when it comes to their added sugar content
Just like yogurt, many premade smoothies disguise themselves as a healthy, filling option when in reality they are actually chock full of as much sugar as a large soda.
As with most things you put into your body, the key to having a healthy sugar intake is mindful moderation. It’s impossible to go “off sugar,” and it’s not likely that you can maintain a healthy diet while constantly munching on sugary snacks either.
Here at ATAQ, our advice is to make healthy levels of sugar consumption a constant goal, just like any other aspect of your workout routine. Do your research, find foods that you like and study their sugar levels. Over time, you’ll become better at spotting hidden, added sugar and discovering delicious snacks and meals that give you the sugar you need without any added fluff.
For more information on heathy eating, exercise and more, check out our other posts.