Athletes need to keep energy levels high during training and competitions — and an obvious, convenient part of that includes consuming sugary sport foods. These sport foods — Think: bars, gus, gels and drinks — are designed to get the job done because they’re easy to consume, portable and made mostly of sugar which is most efficiently converted to energy and utilized during activity.
However, general nutrition guidelines advise adults to not consume more than 10% of their daily intake from added sugar, including most sport food. While this can be done within the general guidelines, most athletes struggle to limit consumption. In fact, a paper on UK elite athletes found 80% consume sport food products and 28% would consider themselves high-sugar consumers. This high-sugar diet might help ramp up energy levels during training, but there are health risks to the performance advantage.
SUGARY DOWNSIDE: WEIGHT GAIN
Athletes burn a lot of calories, but for most, it remains true it is far easier to consume calories than it is to burn them. Like any macronutrient, if you regularly consume more than your body needs, it is stored as fat tissue. Frequently consuming empty sugar calories causes stress to the pancreas, promoting insulin resistance. Leptin, a hormone that signals fullness, is also hindered with sugar consumption while the hunger-signalling hormone ghrelin is promoted. This means you are less likely to feel satisfied from high-sugar foods. Sport foods are highly processed and manufactured to be high in sugar and void of other nutrients.
Many sport foods are manufactured to fit this profile to promote digestion and absorption during training. This can be great for energy during training, but makes it easy to take in more than you need, which can lead to not seeing the weight-loss goals you’re after.
This could worsen in athletes relying on liquid sugar sources which can affect the body similarly to soft drinks. While they serve a purpose, over-consuming sport drinks can be just as toxic to the body as guzzling soft drinks. Research shows sweet beverages are more detrimental than sugar solids, likely because they hit the system faster and have less of an effect on satiety. Aim to drink mostly water and eat meals composed of foods high in fiber such as berries, whole grains and vegetables, to the diet outside of training sessions.
Combat the potential for sugar-induced weight gain by eating meals composed of high-fiber whole foods, hydrating with water or sugar-free electrolyte blends, and limiting processed high-sugar foods; instead try fueling your next workout with a banana, dried fruit or an oatmeal bar.
SUGARY DOWNSIDE: GUT HEALTH
The gastric distress that accompanies consuming bars, gels and gus after bars, gels and gus in long training sessions and races is often referred to by athletes as ‘gut rot.’ Outside of athletic circles, it is more known as gut permeability or leaky gut; a condition where the gut’s barrier is compromised and allows for bacteria, toxins and undigested food particles to travel out of the gut and into the bloodstream. This leads to gastric distress, indigestion, nutritional deficiency from malabsorption and inflammation. There is evidence high-sugar diets are a large contributor to leaky gut syndrome.
Keep your gut health strong by relying on fiber-rich whole foods and eating pre- and probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and kefir. During long endurance training, prevent gut rot by swapping between bites or sips of simple sugar sport foods and more complex sugar sources; chase gel with some potatoes or a peanut butter sandwich and that gulp of sport drink with a bite of granola bar.
SUGARY DOWNSIDE: ORAL HEALTH
It’s no secret sugar intake is linked to poor oral health. Sugary foods, especially drinks and gels which easily coat the mouth, create an oral environment that destructive bacteria feed off of. These bad bacteria are attracted to the sugar, creating an acidic plaque that leads to tooth erosion and cavities. A study on the oral health of Olympic athletes found that of 278 professional athletes, more than half suffered from dental issues despite reporting better dental habits than the general public.
Combat this by brushing immediately after training in addition to basic dental hygiene of brushing, flossing, using mouthwash and getting regular dental checkups.
THE BOTTOM LINE
To reap the positive performance benefits of sugar intake without the negative health concerns, athletes should be mindful of consumption. Athletes tend to have high sugar intake due in-part to consuming processed foods in training, as well as eating sports food at normal snack times due to convenience. Moderate levels of activity won’t counter too much sugar intake from processed sources including sport-specific foods.
Instead, aim to only use these products during high-intensity situations like long endurance training, high-intensity intervals and races where they can be put to use more effectively. Then, fuel less intense efforts with whole foods. Away from training, work to reduce sources of added sugar, consume a balanced diet of nutrient-dense foods and consider working with a sports dietitian to ensure you’re able to reap the positive performance benefits of sugar intake without negative health concerns.
Unlock an experience that’s like having a dietitian, trainer and coach at your fingertips. Sign up for Premium for expert guidance and tools to help you reach your personal health goals.