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Should Athletes Fear Sugar?

Sugar is very much a hot topic at the moment. Everything on the news and within the wellness/fitness industry would appear to brand sugar the 'devil' and thus, should be avoided at all costs. The growth in 'sugar free' and 'detox' diets is phenomenal, which I suppose isn't surprising given the well-established scientific view that removing sugar from any diet directly improves overall health.

However, I wanted to discuss why Sugar perhaps isn't necessarily the bad guy for athletes, or anyone who takes part in high intensity activity.

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for any athlete. Their are limited glycogen stores in the body, which means athletes need to be consuming carbohydrates prior to exercise to ensure they have enough fuel to sustain the level of activity they're about to do. The reason carbohydrates are the main source of energy is due to the speed in which they can be broken down to create ATP (energy) because they can do so without the presence of oxygen - which is important in power sports. Thus when the intensity of the exercise is higher the need for fuel is greater and glycogen (carbohydrates) is the only fuel when the oxygen supply to the muscles is insufficient.

So how does this relate to sugar?

Well all carbohydrates are included under the 'sugar umbrella'. Among the different kinds of carbohydrate that are consumed there are monosaccharides (glucose, fructose and galactose), disaccharides (maltose, sucrose and lactose) and glucose polymers (maltodetrin and starch). 

Carbohydrates fall into two categories: Simple and Complex. Simple carbohydrates breakdown quickly and quickly convert to glucose to be absorbed into your bloodstream and provide your body with energy. Complex carbohydrates are long and complex (as the name suggests!) and take a long time breaking down, thus don't provide the body with immediate energy.

During high intensity exercise the need for energy is high and the need for fibre is low (The body doesn't need to be thinking about getting rid of waste during exercise!). The primary focus for any athlete during this time is therefore to get as much energy as they can, as quickly as they can. The insulin response to simple sugars isn't a concern either, as that's exactly what the body needs to obtain the energy.

Thus sugar has it's place in an athletes diet. That's not to say an athletes diet should be full of sugar during their off season, but during hard training and competition seasons, it can be consumed.

Points of Consideration:

- Consider the intensity of your exercise.
- Understand your own performance goals.
- Understand the need for your body to gain fuel/energy quickly.
- Think practically about how you can obtain this energy.
- Don't fear sugar as a health warning, but more as a form of energy.
- Consider timings of ingestion of these simple sugars.

Written by Rebecca, our Sports Nutritionist

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