The Sugar Debate: Is Sugar Evil or Ok for Athletes?

Do any of these statements hold true for you?

  • Sugar is a total waste of calories. I don’t touch the stuff.
  • I have such a sweet-tooth. My day is grim without some sugar in it.
  • Before I compete, I eat a spoonful of honey to boost my energy.

There is so much confusing information about sugar and how it relates to health, obesity and athletic performance.

Many athletes are confused about the role sugar plays in a daily sports diet. The anti-sugar media reports sugar is health-erosive, yet sports nutrition researchers claim sugar is performance-enhancing.

Many college coaches and athletic trainers insist that too much sugar is not good for athletes and may even slow them down or tire them out quicker in competition. All these conflicting views might leave you wondering: Should I eat sugar or avoid it?

Here is some information to help you better understand the two sides of the Sugar Wars debate.

Burger, coke, fries, donut, muffins and candy

Sugar Is Evil (1)

Why do some people think sugar is not good for athletes? Here are some thoughts.

Not an Essential Nutrient

Our bodies can make sugar (glucose) from the dietary fat and protein that we eat, or by breaking down our body’s muscle and adipose tissue.

Empty Calories

The average American eats about 100 pounds of sugar per year; that’s 2 pounds per week and contributes abundant empty calories.

The Cause of Health Issues

Populations with a high intake of added sugars tend to have health issues. Reducing added sugar to less than 10% of total calories reduces the risk of suffering from being overweight, obesity, and tooth decay.

Driving up Blood Sugar

Routinely consuming 150 sugar-calories each day (i.e., one can of soda) increases the risk of developing diabetes by 1%. Much of this sugar is hidden in packaged foods.

Causing Nutrient Depletion 

Metabolizing added sugar (with no nutritional value) requires vitamins and minerals. With very high sugar consumption (and low intake of other nourishing foods), one could become nutrient depleted.

Not Harmful if Limited

Trading empty sugar calories for nutrient-rich calories is a no-brainer. Limiting sugar intake does not harm anyone.

Girl eating chocolate bar

Sugar Is Ok for People Who Are Fit (2)

Why do some people see sugar as a normal part of an athletic diet? Here are some thoughts to counter the argument that sugar is evil.

Not the Cause of Bad Health

Sugar consumption increased from less than 10 lbs. per person per year in the late 1800’s to about 100 pounds per person per year by World War II. Our health also improved between 1880 and 1980. So, is it fair to say that the increase in sugar hurt our health?

Found in Common Foods

Sugar (and starch—a string of sugar molecules linked together) is in breast milk, dairy foods, fruit, honey, potato, wheat, corn, quinoa and all grains. People around the globe have consumed these “carbs” for years. So why now do sugar and starch suddenly become responsible for creating human obesity and diseases?

Always Described as a Negative

When it comes to sugar, the fear-mongering terms of unhealthy, toxic and poisonous are simply unscientific. The fact is, though, that no one food is healthy or unhealthy.

Not the Cause of Obesity

Our present state of poor health is not because our diets are unhealthy or that we consume sugar, but because we are physically inactive. Low levels of physical inactivity reduce our ability to metabolize sugar optimally, and that explains the true cause of obesity and metabolic diseases.

Not Pathological

In terms of diabetes, blood sugar, not dietary sugar, matters. The rise in blood sugar that occurs after eating is a failure of the muscles and liver to take up the sugar. That is: it’s not what you eat but what your body does with what you eat.

Counted as Calories, Similar to Other Foods

Physical activity affects appetite and energy intake. If we are too inactive, energy intake gets dissociated from energy expenditure. We can easily eat more calories than we burn. What that means is: if you eat more sugar, you will need to burn more calories, like any other food you eat.

Male and female athletes in weightroom snacking

Concluding Comments (3)

Lack of physical activity, more so than sugar, is the greater threat to our health. Given that so many people are “over-fat” and “under-fit,” a diet low in sugars and starches is likely a good idea for them.

However, for sports-active, fit athletes, who are at lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, sugar and carbs are not toxic but rather a helpful way to enhance athletic performance. The one-size diet does not fit all.

No one is suggesting that athletes should eat more sugar but rather understand that, as an athlete, you can embrace a sports diet that includes an appropriate balance of carbohydrate (sugars and starches) in each meal.

Strive for a healthy eating pattern that includes 85% to 90% quality foods and 10% to 15% whatever. Some days, “whatever” might be an apple; other days, it might be a slice of apple pie.

Apple pie and ice cream with apples in the background

If you are fearful that sugar will harm your health, note that some of the rhetoric relies on cherry-picked scientific information that can prove what the messenger wants to prove. Fear-mongering messengers have created a general distrust of Big Food and have shaped opinions that support raw foods, superfoods, whole foods, organic foods, and clean eating.

While a plant-based diet based on unprocessed foods with no added sugar is ideal, it’s not uncommon to see athletes take the advice to the extreme and eat “too clean” (orthorexia). That is not healthy, either.

Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. At some point, this obsession begins to cause health issues, such as not eating for fear that all food is not “pure” enough.

A suggestion: enjoy a balanced variety of foods, in moderation. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to less than 10% of your total calories (about 250+ sugar-calories per day for an active woman who might require about 2,500+ calories a day).

Enjoying a small sweet each day seems better than routinely “cheating” with sugar-binges. Does the age-old advice to enjoy a balanced variety of foods—with a sprinkling of sugar, if desired—seem like a reasonable goal?

Information from: Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD counsels both casual and competitive athletes. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for marathoners, cyclists and soccer players offer additional information.

This article is based on information from the Journal of Progressive Cardiovascular Disease (August, 2018).

1) DiNioloantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH.  In critique of “In Defense of Sugar: The Nuance of Whole Foods.  

2) Archer E. In Defense of Sugar.

3) Lavie CJ. Sugar Wars -Commentary From the Editor pcad.2018.07.007

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