Sugar: Its Place In Sport

Attend any athletic event these days and there is one thing that is present in more liberal numbers than sweaty athletes themselves; GELS! These sugary little ‘life savers’ seem to have no end of uses- it’s fairly normal to see athletes down 1 or 2 before the race, several during the race at regular intervals and then polish one off at the end… with a Powerade to accompany it! I am both an observer and a casual competitor at such events and as a Nutritionist, I struggle no end with this concept. Consider a marathon or an Olympic distance triathlon; both are pro inflammatory in their own right and induce a great deal of physiological stress on the body. So why is it that in the last 30 – 40 years our fuelling strategies have evolved around the use of sports drinks, gels, energy bars and the overall concept of carb loading? This results in copious amounts of refined sugar, added sodium, flavours, preservatives, wheat and gluten being ingested, all of which further contribute to inflammation and are seriously damaging to our health.

In 1945, Willie Honeman (American cycling champion) remarked on the topic of race nutrition; ‘eat whatever foods appeal to you, but be sure they are of good quality and fresh. Avoid too many starchy foods, such as bread, potatoes, pies, pastries etc. Eat plenty of green and cooked vegetables.’ Fast forward to 1996 and the advice was very different; ‘Carbohydrate supplementation is essential to meet the needs of heavy training. Greater portions of pasta, potatoes and breads can help, but many athletes prefer concentrated carbohydrates found in high-carbohydrate drinks’ (Burke, E. Berning, J. 1996). And now, in 2015, you’re probably feeling a bit lonely if you are not following some particular diet. Determined to maintain an open mind and acknowledge that we are all still individuals, last year I began working closely with 14 open minded athletes who were keen to fine tune their nutrition to benefit their performance, but also improve their overall health. This was a 10 week self-directed study that culminated in the participant’s completion of the Tarawera Ultra Marathon; a moderately hilly and technical trail run held in New Zealand across distances of 60km, 85km and 100km. Whilst there were individual differences in diet accounting for people’s own taste preferences as well as their physiology, all participants had to eat only real and whole foods from high quality sources (i.e. no processed sources) as part of their everyday diet and whilst training and competing (obviously allowing for a 90/10 approach). As a result, the macrsonutrient ratio was different from a standard Australian diet; all participants observed an overall drop in carbohydrate intake and a significant increase in dietary fats (only full fat sources were recommended). Some participants did choose to experiment with nutritional ketosis. Here are some of the stand out observations noted during this process:

Those that experimented with nutritional ketosis (male only) very quickly adapted (within 2 weeks) and returned to peak performance in this short time. They noted more stable energy levels and were relieved of digestive discomfort during longer training and events.
Of the females who participated, 5 were at optimal body composition already whilst 3 had heavier builds. All 3 of these women experienced some degree of weight loss (3kg each on average) and a drop in measurements with one losing 6cm off her waist (note: this drop was also accompanied by a reduction in training volume and an increase in daily calorie consumption).
All participants reported more steady energy levels and better recovery. Finally, the most talked about benefit was the ability to simply ‘run longer and fuel less’ with more stable performance overall.
At the completion of my time with these participants, all of them indicated that they would be continuing with their new lifestyle because of the benefits they had seen both in life and in sport. Of course, this is just 1 study, on a very small sample size over a relatively short period of time. But in reality, no study is ever going to be able to isolate diet in terms of nutritional performance and longevity over a lifetime as well as answer all of the questions that we as health professionals and athletes are asking. Many athletes are still struggling with weight management, digestive dysfunction, unstable energy levels, hyper and hypoglycaemia, bonking, excessing injuries and poor recovery. Furthermore, we now see many people coming into the sport of running, cycling or triathlon because they are recommended to start an exercise program due to a health condition; commonly diabetes, obesity or metabolic syndrome. How do we balance the recommendations of the Australian Institute of Sport, who claim that 90g/hour of carbohydrates during long distance events is ideal (source: http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/basics/carbohydrate__how_much, 2015), yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reduced its recommended daily sugar intake to 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for adults? Add to this the hefty evidence that excessive sugar is downright dangerous to our health. The answer, I believe lies with the foods that we have been consuming for many thousands of years; minimally processed nutrient dense whole food sources. The macronutrient ratio may vary from person to person, but it should always include a variety of natural fats whilst limiting pro inflammatory, highly refined carbohydrates. Whether you are an esteemed athlete or a newbie to your sport, getting your nutrition right could make the difference between a lifetime of healthy movement and a ‘yo-yo’ journey as far as performance, injury and overall health markers are concerned. My upcoming seminar will delve into these topics in greater detail. It may help health practitioners to better support their patients who are involved in heavy exercise programs. I will discuss ways to strip nutrition back to basics and then determine the best fuelling on an individual basis. And now back on the topic of sports drinks… Powerade is a sports drink manufactured and marketed by Coca-Cola. Gatorade is owned by PepsiCo. I rest my case J.

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