Effects of Sugar on Athletes

Jessica Hunt, AT

Southwest General Sports Medicine

Anyone interested in shedding a few pound has probably tried to give up sugar. Maybe you choose sugar-free drinks, or maybe you’ve learned to look for hidden sugars in seemingly innocent foods like tomato sauce. But for athletic people, 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.

People also tend to switch from regular to diet drinks, but research shows that people who drink diet drinks tend to gain more weight than those who stick with the regular stuff. Scientists think that artificial sweeteners, because they don’t contain any kilojoules (refers to the energy value of food and the amount of energy our bodies burn, also known as a calorie), fail to activate the body’s ability to regulate intake. Another theory is that people who drink diet drinks think it’s okay to eat other high-kilojoule foods like chips and snacks.

The average American consumes 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day. This is double the USDA’s recommendation of no more than 10 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Sugar is readily available in many forms and is present in a vast number of foods we eat. Because it is found on ingredient lists under many names, it isn’t always obvious to the consumer.

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. Even though foods like fruit and milk have naturally occurring sugars, they come with other nutrients, like calcium, fiber 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.

Optimal functioning, especially during athletic events, is only possible when blood glucose is within a certain range. Normal levels fall between 70 and 150 mg/dl. Levels are typically lower in the morning and higher after meals. If your blood glucose concentration falls below normal, you may become dizzy, tired, hungry and shaky. If it goes above normal, you may become sleepy.

It’s best to consume sugary foods in moderation. Get no more than 20 percent of your calories from sugar. For optimal performance, keep blood glucose levels within normal limits by eating every two to three hours and only consuming high-sugar foods along with less sugary foods. Don’t consume sugary foods and drinks within two hours before exercise or activity. Use sport drinks containing glucose and/or sucrose within 15 minutes after exercise or activity to replenish energy stores and to re-hydrate. These drinks can be consumed up to two hours after exercise, but if done within 15 minutes after exercise, they will be much more effective. Doing these things before and after activity will certainly help keep you at your best!