Added Sugar vs Natural Sugar

At nutrition clinics and expos I’m often asked the same questions over and over. Often they are too in-depth to answer at expos, but I love clinics because I have a lot of one on one, or one on fifteen time. If I had to say what my most often asked about topic was, was sugar. And the most common question is, how much sugar is in this? If you are diabetic or on a ketone diet, this is a valid question. But often, athletes don’t realize that sugar is the fuel our bodies use, and we must take in sugar when exercising.

There is a lot of talk about sugar, and for good reason. The American diet is full of added sugar, which is not good for our health. I think we are starting to realize that added sugar isn’t healthy, and because of that, people have questions on it. And truthfully, there is a lot of misconception out there. For example, I just did a quick google search of “athletes and sugar” to see what I came up with. And what I saw was some good info, but there was also some very misleading and unscientific info. Two things that are saw:

-1 tsp of added sugar is harmful for every organ in our body-WHAT???

-Eating sugar decreases your immune system-FALSE, it’s actually that low carb diets decrease your immune system. That’s another blog though.

So what are the truths about sugar?

  • As adults, we want to keep our normal day-to-day diets as low in added sugar as possible. Think 25g of added sugar or less. This does not mean milk, fruit or veggies.
  • As athletes, when doing a quality workout, we don’t count the added sugar in drinks, gels, bars, chews, etc. We need that extra sugar to fuel our bodies. Now quality is the key word. As I’ve mentioned before, not every workout should be fueled, but longer, more intense workouts should be.

Sports Nutrition and Added Sugar VS Whole Food:

The reason we use sports nutrition is that for endurance exercise, we need both quick and sustained energy. When we are out training and racing for 2-12+ hours, you need to replenish the fuel you are losing. The slower you go, (ultras, century’s, double century’s, etc) the more whole food you can digest( dates, raisins, sweet potatoes, rice bars, PBJ sandwiches) without any issue. The faster you go, the more you need to rely on simple, digestible carbohydrates. When working hard, especially running, your body does not want to have to digest too much fat, protein or fiber. The body also treats all sugar, natural vs processed the same. A sugar is broken down the same way.

Types of Sports Nutrition:

  • Gels-in my opinion, gels are the most convenient way to get calories easily and quickly into our bodies during endurance exercise. I would also put using drinks as your fuel in this category. They are easy, quick and don’t require chewing or digesting. All they really need is to be taken with enough water to not cause GI issues. As long as you drink enough water, 8oz per gel, your stomach can digest gel. If you don’t take them with enough water, it will slow down your body’s absorption rate and can cause GI issues.
  • Chews- If you’ve tried drinking water with gels, but they still cause GI issues, if you don’t like their consistency, or they just aren’t for you, then chews are a good alternative. Chews are just gel in a chew form. Think of them as gel lite. You still need to drink water with them, but because you are taking them in at a slower rate, you don’t need as much water. They are bulkier to carry though.
  • Blends– This is a new category that PowerBar created last year. It’s a fruit puree, blended together and put into a baby food squeezy. There are several other companies that have started doing this as well. They are beneficial because they are also simple digestible carbs, almost partially digested and easier on the stomach. They are less concentrated than gels however, so will require more of them. Good for the bike and the run.
  • Bars/Bites- These are good, especially on the bike, or if you are hiking, or running slowly enough to digest them. I think it’s too hard for the average person to take in bars while running quickly. Having a bar can be a nice way to take away some of the hunger while you’re in an all day event, and if taken early, will be digested before you start your run. I have known some athletes that can eat PowerBars while running and be fine though.
  • Whole food (potatoes, dates, etc)- These types of foods can work well, especially along the same lines as the bars and bites. If you are going slow enough, you can digest just about everything. But sports nutrition developed out of necessity. It’s hard to carry whole food, hard to eat it and often hard to digest it. On the bike it’s not as hard, but carrying it on the run is. Remember, your body does not need the added fat (we have enough of it stored), and fiber while working hard. Once again, if you’re going easy enough, your body can handle it, but if you’re working hard, it often can’t.

***One thing I tell my athletes and nutrition clients is, on race day, you eat opposite of how you should normally eat. Meaning, your normal diet should be low in added sugar and processed foods, and high in whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables and healthy fat. On race day, your diet should be the opposite. Simple “white” carbs, little fat, protein and fiber.***

Is Natural Sugar Better during Exercise/Racing?

From a sugar standpoint, sugar is sugar. You body sees sugar and it reacts the same. The glycemic index will tell us how fast it is absorbed, but when talking about can your body recognize say honey vs a processed sugar, it really can’t. Of course when you aren’t racing or training, natural sugar is the only thing you should use.

Other Sugar Info-Types:

Monosaccharides: “simple sugars”- 3 common ones are glucose (blood sugar), galactose (forms milk sugar) and fructose (fruit/honey/agave).

Disaccharides: “double sugars”- these are sugars that are linked together that break apart easily. 3 common ones are sucrose (table sugar), lactose (galactose plus glucose to form milk sugar) and maltose (glucose plus glucose-brown rice syrup/barley malt)

Polysaccharides: “chains of sugar”-this is when more than two sugars are linked together in a chain. These are starches, or complex carbs that don’t break apart very easily- whole grains.

So, looking at these types of sugars, which are the ones that endurance athletes should use? The two categories to focus on are mono and disaccharides. The only caveat to this is maltodextrin.

Maltodextrin-this is a sugar as well, but you’ll notice it doesn’t have an -ose at the end of it, and people don’t realize it’s a sugar. Maltodextrin is a form of corn starch, and is a glucose polymer. This means it is units of glucose connected together. The glucose units are easily broken and have been known to be easier on the stomach. Maltodextrin is almost tasteless as well. So it makes a good additive.

So now we’ve gone over the types of sugars, I’ll write tomorrow on how we put the sugars together, and why it’s more beneficial for athletes to have two types of sugar vs only one type.



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