The sweet life
Poor sugar. It's earned a sour rap lately, with scientists and public health officials blaming America's sweet tooth for the upswing in diabetes and obesity cases. So does that mean you should kick those cookies to the curb and dump your sports drink down the drain? Not so fast. After all, you're no average woman.
"Athletes need sugar and its more complex counterpart, carbohydrates, for energy," said celebrity dietitian Ashley Koff, R.D., an espnW.com contributor who works with top athletes. "But it's important to know how much and what kinds to get, along with when to take it in." To help you sort through these sugar-coated issues, we quizzed the experts for the info that active folks need to know.
1. How does sugar pump up my workout?
There's a reason why Tour de France cyclists chug soda on the course, and Lamar Odom gobbles up jellybeans pre-game. Sugar serves up an instant boost. "A small amount of sugar circulates in your blood, but the majority is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver," said Leslie Bonci, M.P.H, R.D., the director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, co-author of The Active Calorie Diet and a nutrition consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers. So when you deplete those stores, you'll feel drained and lethargic -- otherwise known as "hitting the wall."
That's why you should take in a little sugar, like a sports drink or gel, during each hour of exercise. According to a study from Britain's University of Birmingham, cyclists who sipped a sweetened beverage during a ride went 19 percent faster than those who chugged water. What's more, a study in Current Sports Medicine Reports found that sugar helps your body absorb liquids faster, thus helping fend off dehydration when you're sweating buckets.
2. So can I eat sugar and drink sodas during exercise?
Unless you're planning on working out for more than an hour, there's no need to unwrap that candy bar. Headed out for a 10-miler? Go ahead, a handful of candy will provide much-needed energy. But a sports drink is the better option. "In addition to sugar, it provides fluids and electrolytes for hydration," said Mary Ellen Bingham, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And although tennis stars like Pete Sampras may have swigged Pepsi mid-match, keep in mind that a soda may put your stomach on edge.
3. What's up with all of the different kinds of sugars?
Although sugar goes by more names than P. Diddy, they all provide the same energy. The main sources: Glucose, sugar derived from starches; fructose, the sweetest sugar from fruit and honey; and lactose, dairy sugar. Table sugar (sucrose) consists of 50 percent fructose and glucose, while high-fructose corn syrup contains closer to 55 percent fructose.
For athletes, a mix of glucose and fructose is most effective, according to the University of Birmingham researchers. They found that the cyclists who swigged a sugary blend (two parts glucose to one part fructose) rode 8 percent faster than those who had glucose alone. That's why it's better to opt for a sweet snack, like a sports drink or gel, rather than, say, potato chips, during long workouts.
4. If I'm an endurance athlete, does that mean I don't have to keep tabs on my sugar intake?
Even if you log as many miles as ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes, there's still such a thing as too much sweetness. Although research suggests that active people are more resistant to the negative effects of sugar than their couch potato counterparts, a serious habit will take a toll over time. Chronic sugar overload makes the body more sensitive to insulin -- a precursor of diabetes, said Richard Johnson, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado. "And athletes are susceptible just like everyone else."
The bottom line: Take in enough sugar during workouts and races to stoke your performance, but keep tabs on your daily intake. "In meals and snacks, look for foods that pair sugar with other important nutrients, like fiber, protein and vitamins," Bonci said. If you're not working up a sweat, a pure-sugar spike can lead to a crash, leaving you feeling tired, and less likely to lace up those sneakers in the first place. So if you're craving a little sugar, follow Karnazes' lead and snack on some naturally sweet fruit.