ATHLETES TAKING BACK DIET CULTURE: SUGAR
This series intention is to normalize foods or a category of foods that diet culture tells us is unhealthy or unacceptable. It can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction. Many of the foods that are avoided or restricted could be part of your fueling toolbox to improve your performance, and your long term health. This is the third post in this series, check out our previous topics on dairy, juice and processed foods.
Our next food to normalize: SUGAR
Candy, chocolate, syrup, ice cream.
These may be the first thoughts that come to mind when someone says, “sugar”. These are sources of sugar, but did you also know that breads, pastas, rice, and even some vegetables contain sugar? Did you also know that “sugar” is our body’s preferred and most efficient source of energy?
These are carbohydrates! When we eat carbohydrate-containing foods, our body digests and absorbs these foods as “sugar” or glucose that may be used for energy.
Our body’s digest and absorb carbohydrate-containing foods like breads, pastas and chocolate similarly. All carbohydrate-containing foods can play a role in our eating (and let’s be real, are super tasty!). For this post, we will be focusing on sugar’s like good ol’ cane sugar, chocolate, candy, syrups and even commercial gels and gummies.
Diet culture claims that sugar is an addictive substance and that it causes inflammation. Is this true?
A 2016 systematic review found, “little evidence to support sugar addiction in humans, and findings from the animal literature suggest that addiction-like behaviours, such as bingeing, occur only in the context of intermittent access to sugar.” Intermittent access to sugar can also be translated into “purposeful restriction”. When we restrict foods, or tell ourselves it is off-limits, we automatically increase the excitement or reward associated with the food when we finally cave and eat it (which will happen).
It’s not that sugar is an addictive substance, it’s that we give addictive-like power to foods when we restrict them.
Blaming sugar as the cause of inflammation is also a bit far-fetched. There is no clear, or quality research to say that sugar intake in and of itself causes inflammation in the body. A meta-analysis and systematic review in 2018 found many issues with the research over this topic. There was a lack of large or diverse populations studied, the time studied was pretty short (about 10 weeks), the way they studied the subjects varied, and not all studies accounted for factors such as; overall calorie intake, exercise, access to food, education level, amongst others. To be clear, this does not mean sugar does NOT cause inflammation, it just means we don’t really know yet. Regardless, restriction of sugar will likely cause worse health outcomes than any *possible* inflammation.
Why Restricting Sugar Could Negatively Impact Your Health
It is easy in this culture to have a very narrow view of health. It is easy to get caught up in the equation of health = diet and exercise. Health is actually much, much bigger than these two things. Health includes diet and exercise, but it also includes the mental, emotional, spiritual and relational aspects.
I’m coming to bat for sugar for a couple reasons. Research shows that restrained eating may actually induce overeating. Dietary restraint may also play a role in precipitating binge eating disorder in men. Extreme food restriction, in general, can negatively impact your quality of life. It may cause you to avoid social events or special gatherings for fear of being around the food. It can take up a large percentage of your brain space from day-to-day. What if you were able to spend less time thinking about food (like sugar), and spend more time thinking about your family, friends, career, hobbies?
How Might it Impact Your Athletic Performance?
Two of the foundational parts of an athlete’s performance is
Are you eating enough to sustain your activity
Are you fueling and recovering adequately.
Athlete’s, even recreationally active adults, have increased energy needs compared to the general population. Avoiding foods with sugar and obsessing over sugar content can inadvertently cause you to under fuel. Under fueling can increase your risk for injury, menstrual irregularities, fatigue, low blood sugars, and even dehydration. Sugar (carbohydrates) are necessary before, sometimes during, and after exercise.
Sugar, in its many forms, are essential to an athlete’s performance. Sugar comes from bread to Poptarts to commercially produced gels and gummies. Sugar is an easily digested and quickly absorbed carbohydrate that can improve performance, delay fatigue, and increase alertness. Our bodies use sugar to fuel our brain and muscles during exercise. Sugar is even necessary for endurance athletes (activities lasting >1 hour) to replenish energy stores that are used up during exercise. This can look like a variety of food choices.
Some days fueling for training can look like
Other days it may look like
A personal favorite of mine is a scoop of Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter.
Cheers to eating a wide variety of foods and the nuances of eating!
*All opinions are my own. I was not paid for any of the above statements.*
Written by Maddi Osburn RDN LD
Cristiana Duarte, Cláudia Ferreira, José Pinto-Gouveia, I.A. Trindade, A. Martinho,
What makes dietary restraint problematic? Development and validation of the Inflexible Eating Questionnaire, Appetite, Volume 114, 2017, Pages 146-154, ISSN 0195-6663, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.03.034.
Kukk, Katrin, and Kirsti Akkermann. “Emotion Regulation Difficulties and Dietary Restraint Independently Predict Binge Eating among Men.” Eating and Weight Disorders, vol. 25, no. 6, Dec. 2020, pp. 1553–1560. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s40519-019-00791-9.
Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals. 6th ed., Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017.
Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016 Nov;55(Suppl 2):55-69. doi: 10.1007/s00394-016-1229-6. Epub 2016 Jul 2. PMID: 27372453; PMCID: PMC5174153