If you are discussing health and fitness, sugar is regularly painted as the villain. Experts point to the consumption of sugar as a source behind obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Kim Larson, a sports dietician for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, wants to change our thinking.
“No sugar is necessarily ‘bad,’” Larson said, “How it’s packaged makes a difference in how the body absorbs it.”
The problem is less about the sugar itself, but the amount consumed. According to the American Health Association, women can eat a maximum of six teaspoons of added sugar daily. For men, nine teaspoons are recommended. The term “added sugar” is defined as sugar that does not appear naturally in food, like high fructose corn syrup. However, the average American consumes over 20 teaspoons of added sugar every day.
Larson argues that sugar is necessary for health and well being, especially if the individual is active. However, it is important to pick the right sugars.
“Sugars are an important energy source for athletes because in their simplest form, they are carbohydrates – the body and brain’s main fuel source,” Larson added.
So which sugars help or hurt your workout? Larson recommends simple sugars like glucose for workouts.
Glucose is found in carbs like bread, pasta and fruits. The body burns glucose the quickest because it doesn’t need to metabolize in a different organ – it enters your bloodstream directly.
“Because glucose is the simplest form of sugar – a monosaccharide – it is the primary type that cells use,” Larson said.
Fructose is also recommended for a pre-workout snack, but in moderation. Fructose is a monosaccharide that is found in fruit, vegetables and fruit juice. Unlike glucose, fructose must break down in the liver first before moving through your bloodstream. If an excess of fructose is eaten, the slow metabolism results in weight gain. Larson recommends two servings of fruit per day, and limiting fruit juice intake.
While glucose metabolizes the quickest, Larson recommends that physically active individuals eat a mix of glucose, fructose and lactose.
“Each sugar uses a different metabolic pathway to provide energy to the muscles,” Larson said, “You can pump more sugar into the muscle if you are consuming two or three different types, as opposed to one. That’s a distinct advantage that delays fatigue and increases training intensity and performance.”
Eating glucose and fructose together results in a quicker oxidization. Snacks like apples, bananas and popcorn contain both glucose and fructose, and are great sources of energy.
While sugar is good for your body, Larson does not recommend eating a candy bar before a workout. Candy bars and junk food contain refined sugar.
“It’s always best to get sugar from whole foods rather than from a candy bar,” Larson recommended, “A candy bar just dumps all of the sugar quickly into the bloodstream. After eating, blood sugar may fall even further, making you feel lousy and potentially causing headaches and fatigue.”
The recommended amount and type of sugar depends on the duration and intensity of the workout. The general takeaway from Larson is to focus on simple sugars, low-glycemic snacks and a moderation of fructose intake.