Sugar and Athletes

Too much sugar in a diet can lead to many not-so-sweet health consequences. But can athletes get away with having more sugar in their food and beverages?

Learn about the different kinds of sugar, which sugars you should limit and when sugar can improve athletic performance before you decide for yourself.

Added sugars vs. natural sugars

Foods with added sugar contain sugars that were purposefully put into the food during processing. Companies use added sugar to improve a food’s flavor, texture or coloring. Added sugars include additional calories and do not provide any extra nutrition.

Many healthy foods like fruits and vegetables contain sugar, but this is natural sugar, not added sugar. Natural sugars are sugars that exist naturally in foods and were not added during food processing. Foods with natural sugars include fruits, vegetables and dairy products. These foods have many essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fibers. Fiber is especially important because it reduces sugar’s effect on blood sugar. Fiber also helps people feel full longer and promotes regular digestion.

Which sugar is better? Natural sugars beat out added sugar thanks to their extra nutrients. For example, compare apple slices with apple-flavored fruit snacks that contain the same amount of sugar. With the apple slices, there is more fiber, vitamins and minerals than in the fruit snacks. The slices will also be more filling for longer.

What foods have added sugars?

Many sweet treats have added sugars, including desserts, pastries, ice cream and candy. But added sugar is also in many other foods that might surprise you. Juices, sports drinks, soda, yogurt, flavored milk, cereal, sauces and more all contain added sugars.

Check the nutrition facts specifically for added sugars. These labels will sometimes state how much of the sugar amount is added sugars. Added sugars will also be listed on the ingredients list. These ingredients mean the food has added sugars: sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, honey and molasses.

How much sugar should athletes consume in a day?

Typically, over half of an athlete’s diet will be carbohydrates, which includes added sugars. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people limit their daily calories that come from added sugar to 10% or less. For the average person, this means they can consume about 200 calories from sugar per day for a 2,000 calorie diet. Athletes with higher calorie needs can adjust their sugar consumption accordingly.

Athletes should pay attention to which foods have added sugars and be selective in their consumption. With some foods, athletes can look for low sugar or no sugar alternatives to help reduce their added sugar intake.

To stay within the recommendations, enjoy foods with added sugars only in moderation.

How to avoid added sugars

The best way to avoid added sugars is to find less-sugary options. Swap out sugary cereal for plain cereal or oatmeal with fruit. Choose Greek yogurt over traditional yogurt.

Athletes with a sweet tooth can choose foods with smaller amounts of added sugar that are filling and satisfy their craving. For meals, add nutritional value by eating fruit, fiber, protein or a healthy fat.

Added sugar and performance

There’s a reason many performance products like sports drinks, recovery beverages, gels, carbohydrate products and energy bars contain added sugars. For athletes, these products may help sustain their energy levels during strenuous or prolonged bouts of exercise. That’s why basketball players sip on energy drinks from the sidelines of an intense tournament and endurance athletes bring energy gels with them on long runs.

These products, at the right time and place, can give an athlete a quick source of fuel.

Sports dietitians help athletes assess their overall diet, including how many carbohydrates they should be eating. Dietitians give personalized recommendations for timing carbohydrate intake around workouts and competitions to help optimize an athlete’s performance.

Contact a dietitian for help with managing sugar for better performance.