Athletes need a certain amount of sugar as fuel. But how much, and what kind?

Any athlete interested in shedding a few pounds has probably tried to give up sugar. Maybe you choose sugar-free drinks, or maybe you’ve even learned to look for hidden sugars in seemingly innocuous foods like tomato sauce. But for athletes, cutting out the sweet stuff altogether is a big mistake. Sugar, after all, is a carbohydrate, and in moderation it is your friend and fuel.

Besides, going cold turkey has its drawbacks: for one thing, it’s nearly impossible – even a cold turkey sandwich is likely to contain sugar. And research shows that people who drink diet drinks tend to gain more weight than those who stick with the regular stuff. Scientists hypothesize that artificial sweeteners – because they don’t contain any kilojoules – fail to activate the body’s ability to regulate intake. Another theory is that people who drink diet drinks then think it’s okay to eat other high-kilojoule foods like chips.

So what’s the time and place for sugar in an athlete’s life? Nutritionists advise that athletes get 10 percent of their total daily kilojoules from it. An athlete who’s on an 8,000kJ diet can spend about 800 of them – or about 50 grams a day – on simple sugars (the kind in sports drinks, energy bars, and honey). These single-molecule sugars enter the bloodstream right after consumption and are easily converted to glucose, which fuels a workout. Generous as this may sound, the daily quota can sneak up on you. Eat or drink too much of a good thing, and simple sugars can stimulate unhealthy effects, like dramatic spikes in blood sugar and triglyceride production that can lead to heart disease. A cereal bar, pasta sauce, or instant oatmeal can easily contain 15 to 30 grams.

To stay within a healthy range, look at food labels to see how many grams of total carbs come from sugar. In some cases it’s easy to make a healthier choice: one brand of yoghurt may contain 25 grams of sugar per serving, while another will have only six – and all from natural lactose. Foods like fruit and milk have naturally occurring sugars, but they come with other nutrients, like calcium, fibre, and vitamin C. It’s the same with complex sugars, the kind found in whole grains like brown rice, and vegetables. They more than make up for their sugar content in all-around nutritional value.

Using the terms simple and complex carbohydrate is an old way of grouping carbohydrates according to their pre-digestion chemical structure.

Examples of simple carbohydrate include fruit juice, dried fruit, sports drinks, milk, sugar, jam, honey, soft drinks and cordials.

Examples of complex carbohydrate include pasta, rice, breads, breakfast cereals, and some fruits and vegetables.

It was thought that due to their chemical structure simple sugars caused a rapid rise in blood glucose while complex carbohydrates caused a more gradual release of glucose into the blood. Recent research has shown that the rise in blood sugar after eating food can also be affected by the type of sugar or starch in the food, the processing or cooking of the food, fat and fibre content and ripeness of the food. It is more useful to rank carbohydrate foods according to the glycaemic index, which takes these factors into account.

Athletes need to use their sweet grams wisely – when they need instant energy. Simple sugars are the perfect workout fuel, because they digest so quickly. The optimal concentration of sugar in a sports drink or gel is about six or seven percent of the total carbohydrates. Anything more can upset the stomach, and anything less may not provide enough energy.

Simple sugars are also preferable to complex ones after your workout, when your muscles are primed to replenish glycogen stores. Pre-workout (and after workouts of longer than an hour), you’ll want some complex carbs with your sugar, as they are important for long-term energy.

 

What’s sweetening your post-workout drink or snack? To make the best choice, look at the ingredients on the label. You may be taking in sugars artificial sweeteners or both.

 

Simple Sugars

Sucrose
Glucose and fructose together make sucrose, or plain white table sugar, as well as turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and powdered sugar. Often, a main ingredient in sports drinks.

Fructose
This fruit-juice concentrate is almost twice as sweet as sucrose, and it’s attached to all the natural nutrients of fruit and fruit juice, but it causes stomach upset in some people.

Glucose
The basic sugar unit in the blood, glucose is often listed on labels as dextrose. It’s the body’s immediate source of cellular energy, so you’ll see it a lot in sports drinks.

Lactose
A mildly sweet, naturally occurring sugar found in milk and dairy products, like yoghurt. For many people, it can be a challenge to digest right before or after a workout.

Honey
Used in some gels and sports bars, honey contains naturally occurring B vitamins and anti-oxidants, but also more kilojoules than sugar, so dieters should keep an eye on the numbers.

 

Artificial Sweeteners

Saccharin

Today’s Sweet’N Low was discovered in 1879. One of the world’s most widely used (and tested) lab-made foods, its been both embraced and controversial for its entire existence.

Sucralose
The most recent sweetener on the market. It’s also the least controversial artificial sweetener, because many people find it tastes the best.

Aspartame
This low-kilojoule sweetener, in hundreds of products, is up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, so tiny amounts go a long way.

Acesulphame-K
An artificial sweetener sound in many diet drinks, often combined with aspartame and sucralose. Has a mildly bitter aftertaste compared with other substitutes.

Polypls
Also known as sugar alcohols (along with sorbitol and manitol), these sweeteners contain kilojoules. Because they are absorbed slowly, they can cause stomach upset.