If there are two pieces of dietary advice that are heralded as infallible in modern society they are the following:
Saturated fats are bad for you and they will kill you.
Sugar is bad for you and it will kill you.
Neither bit of information is entirely wrong, but these statements are much “more wrong” than they are correct. The statements are overblown, and this is quite obvious when you watch a health-conscious person reading the label of a junk food right around when they gasp and their eyes widen in shock as if the food item just cussed them out in public. Is junk food really THAT dangerous? No. It may shave off a few years, but the life expectancy would still be rather long.
One of the things on that label was certainly a good deal of added sugar. Let’s talk about why that’s not such a big deal that it should produce a visceral reaction.
Problems with Sugar
What is the rationale that sugars are bad for you? These are the most common reasons.
1. Sugar Causes Weight Gain.
False. Calories cause weight gain. Sugar is just easy to eat and to overeat. Being calorie conscious can prevent weight gain even if sugars are consumed. “Too much” sugar can cause practical problems, like drinking 5 sodas over the course of the day and swallowing those extra 800 calories in addition to 3 typical meals easily sends people overboard. The problem here is sugars are not filling (and can even have an opposing effect), so we could unconsciously eat too many calories, causing weight gain.
2. Sugar Increases Risk of Disease
This one has some truth to it that can only partially be explained by calories, but don’t freak out! We need to take this in context. First of all, carbohydrates cannot be “good” while sugar is “bad.” All carbohydrates are sugar. They just may be 100 sugar molecules linked together, so it is just not called sugar – but it is sugar. What happens when we eat carbs with chains of many sugar linked together? They are broken down into sugars. Thus, if you think sugars are “bad,” logic dictates that you think carbohydrates are “bad.” Most of you probably don’t. One of the most mysterious relationships in “healthy eating” are to eat fruits but not sugar. This literally impossible, so the recommendations got creative. Now sugars are okay if they’re not added sugars, but chemically, they are 100% identical and they have 100% of their functions in common regardless of source. Slowing the digestion with some fiber does not make that meaningful a difference.
Second, dietary recommendations just assume that people are inactive because… well, let’s face it, most people are inactive. Probably not you, reading this on an endurance sport-oriented website. Probably not most of your friends, but probably most of your family, the people at your job, and the passersby you see on a daily basis. Most people in America are not active, and they are mostly unhealthy overall. This is what gives rise to both of the aforementioned, unnecessarily broad-scope bits of health advice. The reality of the matter is, as athletes, sugar can be downright helpful, as we will discuss later.
3. Sugar Causes Tooth Decay
True. Just brush your teeth, and you will be okay. Keep in mind that “non-sugar” carbs will do the same thing.
4. Sugar Reduces Vitamin and Mineral Status
Not true. Diets high in sugar are typically low in “real” food. Sugar does not have a direct action on vitamin or mineral metabolism in nearly all cases. Eating foods high in sugar tend to reduce vitamin and mineral intake due to the sugary foods replacing consumption of vitamin- and mineral-rich foods.
5. Added Sugars (and Honey) Increase Glycemia
This is true. Obviously. If you eat sugar, blood sugar goes up. If you eat fat, blood lipids go up. If you eat protein, blood amino acids go up. Is this a problem? It can be, but again, context. As long as the body is still efficient at clearing sugars, not a huge deal – just a small deal. Eating natural sugars is only viewed as beneficial because there is typically fiber to slow the release of sugar, making it easier to deal with. But is this what we want?
Not always. At rest, slowing and extending the sugar-insulin response curve is generally beneficial compared to a fast curve. During exercise, when the body needs fuel, it typically needs it fast. The body doesn’t have any good reason to wait for nutrients. It needs them right away.
So there you have it. Sugar can be, in some cases, a less than friendly customer, and if we want to dig deep, fructose (fruit sugar) is a much more serious issue than sugars in general that deserves an article of its own. However, there are uses for sugar – even fructose.
Okay, so the previous section comes off a little “pro-sugar,” and that pains me deep within my nutrition soul. Reducing regular diet sugars is a good thing to do, and it is not bad advice to reduce regular diet sugar intake – in fact is a pretty good idea. The problem with the low sugar advice is that the people who need it most aren’t listening. The people who are listening to the advice are those who can actually eat sugar and “get away with it.” Kind of a catch-22 until the disobedient get on board.
Those who can get away with it are the active people. Probably people like you and your friends. Carbohydrates, and therefore sugar, generally improve endurance performance. However, these are the same people who have become fearful of sugar. It is not necessary. Even low-carbers should be having some carbohydrate near endurance exercise, and about half of those carbs should be sugar. Why is that?
Going back to the first paragraph of this section, I use the phrase, “regular diet sugars.” What am I talking about? By “regular diet,” I am referring to meals that occur distant in time from exercise. In other words, more than or equal to 2 hours before or 2 hours after exercise while the body is at rest. Within the time frame near exercise, sugars can actually benefit endurance performance – these are strategic sugars. It’s an exception to the rule. Within 30 minutes of exercise, during exercise, and depending on the circumstances, up to 4 hours post-exercise, sugars are going to offer performance benefits.
The reason athletes and other performance-oriented people should have some sugar near exercise is because it is going to fuel their workout or race. Within 30 minutes of starting a race, increasing blood sugar by eating a mix of sugar and other carbs helps the athlete start strong. During the race, a mix of sugars and starch keep the athlete going strong through the finish with some quick sugars and sustained energy from slower releasing sugars from starch.
Post-exercise is a little different and may be confusing. You’re done exercising, so sugars are “bad” again, right? Wrong. Simple sugars are the most effective way to replenish the muscle glycogen burned up during the race or workout, and having a little fructose enhances total carb utilization. Having an extended release of sugar does not capitalize on the body’s willingness to use the sugars – a willingness that is created by exercise. Once exercises ends, the body gradually returns to a “normal” state, one that is not as likely to put sugar to good use (it takes ~2 hours). However, slamming some sugars soon after exercise will direct them towards the muscle to restock fuel supplies, and this practice improves endurance performance over the long haul. Any danger of sugar is attenuated with exercise.
In a Nutshell
Consuming sugar indiscriminately is a problem, and this article does not intend to minimize the dangers of such an approach. However, strategic and deliberate sugar consumption is very likely best practice for producing tip-top endurance performance. This includes before, during, and after training or racing. So the next time you pick up a post-workout, like RecoverElite, and you see 40+ grams of sugar, rest easy knowing that those sugars are strategic for recovering muscle glycogen post-exercise and powering future performance. Also of note, ALL sugars in supplements are added sugars. If you ever see a supplement label that lists “sugars” but not “added sugars,” that label is wrong and they should be listed as added sugars as well!