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Sugar has been a hotly debated topic in recent years. Does the phrase, “sugar is the devil” sound familiar? From health professionals and athletes (read Pete Jacob’s recent blog on cutting out ‘treats’ in the lead up to the 2012 Ironman World Championships), to regular individuals interested in their general health, it appears more and more people are jumping off the sugar train in the pursuit of specific goals like weight loss, heart health and to perhaps even achieve athletic gains.
But is all sugar created equal? How does too much sugar affect your health? Are there times when athletes may actually benefit from sugar?
Sugar in our diets is either naturally occurring or added. Naturally occurring sugar is sugar inherently found in food; for example, sugar in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Added sugar is the sugar we put into food during its processing, cooking or at the table; for example, the sugar you might add to your cereal, tea or coffee.
Most of the time when we talk about sugar, we’re generally referring to added sugar or sucrose – the most commonly occurring simple carbohydrate in the Western diet. Some food companies also use high fructose corn syrup, which is refined from corn in place of sucrose, as it is a cheaper, sweet alternative. However, regardless of whether it’s sucrose or high fructose corn syrup – it’s all a form of sweet, empty kilojoules or calories.
Sucrose (made up of glucose plus fructose) and high fructose corn syrup (also made up of glucose plus fructose, with a greater proportion being fructose) are two well known added sugars used by the food industry and are commonly found in soft drinks, fruit juice, sweets, cakes and biscuits and pastries. It’s this added or processed sugar in our diets that contributes most significantly to growing health problems like obesity and high cholesterol.
“High fructose corn syrup is the sweetener commonly used by the beverage industry (and studies) suggest that excessive fructose consumption is playing a role in the epidemics of insulin resistance, obesity, hypertension, dyslipidaemia and type 2 diabetes”
(Johnson, R et al ‘Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association’, Circulation Journal of the American Heart Association. 2009; 120:1011-1020).
Sugar is made up of glucose and fructose, and it seems the fructose component of sugar has the negative affects on our health; largely because of the way it metabolises in our bodies.
Unlike glucose, fructose is metabolised by the liver and through various metabolic pathways, and an excessive intake may lead to increased triglyceride levels, particularly very-low density lipoprotein (VLDL), which is a known risk factor for heart disease (Johnson, R et al ‘Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association’, Circulation Journal of the American Heart Association. 2009; 120:1011-1020).
Furthermore, sugar, particularly in the form of sweetened beverages, has also been known to contribute to weight gain.
While obesity is certainly a multi factorial issue, it must be acknowledged that the consumption of added/processed/refined sugar, particularly by way of sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, is contributing to the problem.
In terms of weight gain, this largely occurs from energy imbalance (eating more calories or kilojoules than is used up in physical activity), however sugar consumption contributes significantly to this imbalance. Studies have shown that a “higher intake of soft drinks (is) associated with greater energy intake, higher body weight and lower intake of other nutrients” (Johnson, R et al ‘Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association’, Circulation Journal of the American Heart Association. 2009; 120:1011-1020).
Furthermore, studies have also shown that it’s possible to achieve “greater weight loss as sugar-sweetened beverage intake (is) decreased” (Johnson, R et al ‘Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association’, Circulation Journal of the American Heart Association. 2009; 120:1011-1020).
Naturally occurring fructose from fruit does not seem to have the same metabolic effect as added fructose (from sucrose or high fructose corn syrup). This is due to the presence of fibre and other dietary nutrients in fruit. So eating two serves of fruit per day, as part of a healthy, balanced diet is good and has positive health benefits.
While, in general, it is beneficial for health and wellbeing to limit processed/added/refined sugar from treats and sugary drinks, there are times when athletes may benefit from some sugar intake, as part of their activity, when extra carbohydrate is specifically required for sports performance. This sugar generally comes in the form of sports gels and drinks. However, these foods and drinks are designed to be used within sport. It’s best to avoid these foods and drinks outside of the times they were specifically designed for. Bottom line – you probably don’t need to be sipping on Gatorade at your desk at work, or snacking on an energy bar.
The Australian Institute of Sport recommends that for endurance events (those lasting anywhere from 90minutes+), athletes need 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour to fuel performance. This is generally achieved through a combination of glucose and fructose which can be found through food and sports nutrition products. For example, having a banana or an energy bar, or super fast-working, easy-use gels and sports drinks, during your ride or run.
In general, as recommended by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, limiting foods and drinks that contain added sugar will benefit your general health, heart health and waistline. However, there are times where athletes, particularly endurance athletes, may in fact benefit from some sugar – that is, foods, drinks and sports gels containing sugar within their sport, as a way to fuel activity and as a quick, easy way replenish glycogen stores.
(Burke, L and Cox G. ‘The Complete Guide to Food for Sports Performance, Peak Nutrition for your Sport’, © Allen and Unwin 2010, pp35-36)
Australian Institute of Sport, ‘Carbohydrate the facts’ http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/basics/carbohydrate__how_much, accessed 28/7/2013.
Burke, L and Cox G. ‘The Complete Guide to Food for Sports Performance, Peak Nutrition for your Sport’, © Allen and Unwin 2010, pp35-36.
National Health and Medical Research Council Department of Health and Aging, Australian Dietary Guidelines, Eat for Health, Educator Guide – www.eatforhealth.gove.au.
Johnson, R et al ‘Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association’, Circulation Journal of the American Heart Association. 2009; 120:1011-1020.
Tappy, L et al ‘Fructose and metabolic diseases: New findings, new questions’, Nutrition, 26 (2010) 1044-1049.