Sugar: Friend or Foe?

Added sugar is everywhere in the foods we consume. Just look at the back of any package of food and chances are you will find sugar as an added ingredient. Lately sugar, which is a form of carbohydrate, has got a bad rap. But is sugar really a bad thing? Well, the answer is: it depends.

Sugar in its composition is a simple form of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are an important nutrient, especially for endurance athletes. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy used by the body during exercise and range from simple, such as sugar, to more complex, such as whole grains. The difference is how long is takes the body to break down the carbohydrate and how fast or slow it enters the blood stream. As you can probably guess, simple carbohydrates break down much faster and as a result enter the blood stream rapidly. From here they can be used for energy or taken up by the muscles and stored as glycogen.

So why is sugar a bad thing?

Well, on a day-to-day basis consuming too many simple carbohydrates can increase feelings of hunger. Since simple carbohydrates are so easily digested they produce a spike in blood sugar followed by a crash. The result is that fullness, or satiety, is short lived. How often have you eaten a piece of candy only to be even hungrier quite soon afterwards? Since simple carbohydrates don’t “stick with us” as long it generally causes us to eat more in the long run.

The second issue with sugar-laden foods is that they are devoid of other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. During processing, foods are often stripped of their nutrients resulting in a food with no real nutritional value. These “empty calories” lack all the healthy nutrients that found in unprocessed foods. Vitamins and minerals are imperative for the body to function properly and fiber helps to increase satiety and keep us feeling full longer. Highly processed foods contain no nutritional benefits and also don’t keep us feeling full.

Sugar and the endurance athlete

Endurance athletes have heard for years that carbohydrates are an important part of the diet. In fact, the recommendation for endurance athletes is to consume 45-65% of total calories from carbohydrates. Doesn’t that seem contradictory? Well, not exactly. Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, especially for endurance athletes. As states above, there are different types of carbohydrates, one being simple sugars. Just like for the average person, endurance athletes should try to avoid too many simple sugars on a day-to-day basis. The difference comes when exercise is introduced. During exercise the body needs energy to fuel the work being accomplished. Since blood flow is diverted from the gut to the working muscles, digestion is slowed. During this time, simple sugars ARE the recommended source of energy. Carbohydrates that take little effort digest are preferred because they enter the blood stream quickly and can be used immediately for energy. When consumed at the right time, simple sugars are actually a good thing for endurance athletes.

How can I avoid excess sugar?

There are two things you can do to avoid excess sugars in your diet. First, eat more whole foods. Foods that have gone through little are no processing still contain many nutrients and usually don’t have sugars added to them. When you shop for groceries, think perimeter- that’s where most of the whole foods reside. I advise clients to shop the perimeter first and fill their cart with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meat, and diary. Then, after making a big outer loop, enter the aisles. The aisles mostly processed foods in the form of boxes and cans. Try to limit the amount of foods purchased from the aisles. When you must purchase a processed food, check the label. Often there are multiple manufacturers of a given product and some may contain more sugar than another. Using the technique of perimeter shopping really cuts down on the amount of processed foods purchased, and subsequently consumed. When you have a cart full of good, healthy looking food its less tempting to fill it with impulse buys from the aisles.

Second, to avoid consuming excess sugar think instead of adding in more protein and fat. When fat and protein are added to each meal they help to increase satiety. When people feel hungry shortly after a meal it’s often because they didn’t consume enough fat or protein with that meal. Think about it- which would fill you up more? A piece of bread with fruit jam or a piece of bread with cheese? Generally the piece of bread with cheese will make you feel full longer since it won’t break down as quickly as the bread and jam. Consuming healthy fats and protein in a meal are beneficial for a few reasons. First of all, fat and protein slow the digestion process since they require greater break down after eating. This is result in a slower, more steady rise in blood sugar rather than a spike. Second, when fat and protein are digested, gut hormones are released into the blood stream,  signaling to the brain to stimulate satiety. Consequently, consuming a meal with fat and protein will also affect our central perception of hunger and increase fullness. This is in addition to the slower digestion and release of nutrients, we also feel fuller longer. And lastly, assuming the same quantity of food is consumed, adding fat and protein to a meal means less carbohydrate will be consumed. Thus, adding fat and protein greatly impacts appetite- increasing fullness and decreasing the amount of simple sugars consumed at a meal.

To summarize, sugar is okay in moderation. The problem is most processed foods contain excess sugar, causing lower satiety and the tendency to over consume later on. To avoid consuming excess sugar, choose more whole foods, shop the perimeter at the grocery store, and check food packages. Also, make sure to include fat and protein with each meal to keep you feeling full longer. Most importantly though, remember that moderation is key. Sugar itself it not the issue, it’s the quantity of sugar consumed. And for an endurance athlete, there is a time and place during exercise where simple sugar is preferred. Sugar can be part of a healthy diet (heck, it tastes good!) when consumed at the right time in appropriate amounts.