We are often asked by athletes: Can I still win in the kitchen if I eat sugar every now and then? Is sugar bad for me? How much, when and what kind should I eat? Should I just avoid sugar all together?
In our Winning in the Kitchen podcasts, we have briefly talked about the different types of sugars. The main point we try to drive home is that sugar with fiber (aka the kind found in fruits and vegetables) is good for you and the sugar found in processed foods is well… not so great for you. This has inevitably lead to A LOT of questions! So in this post, we are going to talk about that sweet thing called sugar in much more depth!
For starters, lets just clear it up that sugar is not inherently bad for you. In fact, simple or “added” sugar is beneficial to athletes as it helps them to perform better and recover faster when consumed appropriately! For the general public and for athletes outside of training, consumption of added sugars should be limited as excessive intakes are associated with a number of health problems including obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
But how much is too much and what the heck do you mean by “appropriately”? Let’s jump in and start learning!
What are “added sugars” ?
Added sugars are sugars that are removed from their original source and added to food products during preparation.
Added sugars include:
- Sucrose (table sugar), dextrose, glucose, fructose, and maltose
- Sugars from syrups including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maple syrup*, molasses*, corn syrup, malt syrup, agave* and honey*
- Sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices (e.g. peach nectar, apple juice concentrate)
*See note at the end*
Added sugars do not include:
- Naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits, and vegetables
- Most process starches, like maltodextrin (which produces a very similar response to sugar when consumed… i.e. causes the rapid release of insulin and rise in blood sugar). The exception to this is if these starches were “intentionally” produced during food processing, as is the case with oat milk.
How much sugar should people consume?
There is no universal consensus for how much should be consumed. The current recommendations vary from ≤5% of total calories from the World Health Organization (WHO) to ≤10% of total calories according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA’s). In the US, nutrition facts labels follow the DGA’s recommendation of ≤10% of calories from added sugar and are all based on a 2000 calorie diet to help consumers compare similar food products. That means the % of added sugars shown on a food label are based on consuming no more than 200 calories or 50g of added sugar per day. To put that into perspective, 50g of added sugar is equivalent to consuming about 1/4 cup of syrup with your pancakes!
Spoiler: These recommendations do not apply directly to athletes as simple carbs are necessary for optimal performance and help to promote muscle repair and glycogen resynthesis post exercise.
What foods contain added sugar?
Obvious sources of added sugar are soda, syrups, cookies, candy, and ice cream. But it can also be found in many other foods including: flavored yogurts, pasta sauces, bread, chips, breakfast cereals, salad dressings, some dried fruit (typically cranberries and mango), nondairy beverages, marinades and condiments such as ketchup and BBQ sauce. If you want to win in the kitchen, you have to be a sugar detective and check your labels! Over the course of a day, these hidden sources of added sugar can add up!
Okay, I need to read my labels… But how can I tell how much I am eating?
Warning: the following might change the way you grocery shop!
The quickest way to find out how much added sugar is in a product is to check the nutrition facts label. Below is an example from a bottle of cranberry juice, the added sugars (which are added because it is bitter otherwise) are outlined in red. To help you visualize how much sugar that is, divide the amount of added sugar by 4 and that is how many teaspoons of sugar are in the product.
But what about athletes? Should they follow these recommendations?
The percentage of added sugars shown on the nutrition facts panel is typically not a good indicator of how much sugar an endurance athlete should consume each day. That’s because the energy needs for most endurance athletes will be greater than 2000 calories. As a result, athletes can consume more carbs and sugar compared to their sedentary counterpart on the days they are active and still meet their nutritional needs. The exact amount of carbs and sugar will vary and athletes should consult with a sports nutritionist or dietitian to determine their specific needs, but here are some helpful tips:
- When participating in exercise for 2.5-3 hours or more, athletes should consume ~60-90g of carbs per hour. If this exercise is intense, simple sugars in the form of sports gels, drink mixes or blocks are recommended to prevent GI issues.
- If an athlete plans to train hard again within the next 8-24 hours, they should consume 1-1.2 grams of carbs for every kilogram of body weight for the first 4 hours post exercise. During that first hour, added sugars are okay and are likely a better choice for athletes who experience decreased appetite post exercise.
- Athletes should aim to consume ≤10% of total calories from added sugar, NOT including the calories from carbs needed during training and the first hour after training.
Can’t athletes just get all their carbs from complex carbs like quinoa and oats?
If they can tolerate them and they aren’t doing race pace efforts, sure! However for many athletes, intense training (>75% of VO2 max) often causes stomach discomfort. To help decrease the incidence and severity of these episodes, athletes should avoid foods high in fiber (i.e. complex carbs like whole wheat bread, quinoa, beans or broccoli) 2-3 hours before and ~1 hour after intense exercise. Outside of training though, the focus should be on meeting carb needs with unprocessed, nutrient dense, fiber-rich fruits, veggies and whole grains! #eatyourgreens
What about a treat every now and then?
Yes, you should limit added sugar in your diet when you aren’t training… but I don’t want you to become locked down by the rule that sugar is only okay for training and recovery. Sweets outside of training are okay too when consumed in moderation (say 2-3x per week). WHY? Because creating extremely strict rules around food does not make cooking very fun and is not a sustainable approach to eating. Think about it… if you couldn’t ever ride with your friends/do group rides because your training was so strict you would likely get burnt out and lay off structured training. Same goes for your diet! Focus on making small, sustainable changes that allow you to still enjoy food AND promote your performance and long term health!
*Note on added sugars: You may notice that at FasCat we often use small amounts of honey, maple syrup and molasses in our recipes. This is because while these sweeteners are definitely a source of sugar, they also contain small amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other micronutrients! Keep your eyes out for some recipes to be released soon that use these sweeteners!
- Karpinski, Christine and Rosenbloom, Christine A., Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, Sixth Edition (2017).
- Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels: Questions and Answers Related to the Compliance Date, Added Sugars, and Declaration of Quantitative Amounts of Vitamins and Minerals: Guidance for Industry. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Nov. 2018.
- Nolan VC, Harrison J, Cox JAG. Dissecting the Antimicrobial Composition of Honey. Antibiotics (Basel). 2019;8(4):251. Published 2019 Dec 5. doi:10.3390/antibiotics8040251
- Ahmed S, Othman NH. Honey as a potential natural anticancer agent: a review of its mechanisms. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:829070. doi:10.1155/2013/829070
- Samarghandian S, Farkhondeh T, Samini F. Honey and Health: A Review of Recent Clinical Research. Pharmacognosy Res. 2017;9(2):121‐127. doi:10.4103/0974-8490.204647
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Lacey provides education and guidance to athletes about how to make healthy food choices that supports their performance goals, aids in sustainable weight loss, and improves their recovery. We are currently in the process of developing custom nutrition plans and one-on-one counseling with her, so keep your eyes out for those to be released in the near future!