Moments after winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in Belgium, World Champion Peter Sagan double-fisted Haribo Gold Bears before making his way to the podium. Innumerable gifs and video clips immediately started circulating, as his post-race nutrition choice was a virtual kick in the teeth to every “marginal gains”-loving food pseudoscientist convinced simple sugar is the root of all evil. Here is a guide to what you might say the next time someone feels obliged to warn you about what all the added sugar in your sports drink, gel, or peanut butter and jelly is going to do to you.
Performance and health are not synonymous
There’s a difference between an athlete consuming exogenous carbohydrate and a sedentary person choosing a sugary soda or juice drink over water or tea. Carbohydrate is a high-octane fuel that improves athletic performance, particularly in mixed-intensity activities and high-intensity training efforts. During exercise your body is primed to put sugar to immediate use, and after exercise your muscle cells have more “doors” open so sugar carried in your bloodstream can replenish muscle glycogen utilized during your workout.
Consuming a lot of sugar when your body has no immediate use for it is what’s problematic for human health. And from the health perspective, overconsumption of sugar is a bigger problem than overconsumption of fat, protein, or total calories (energy). Overconsumption in any form is likely to increase a person’s weight and percentage of body fat. Excess sugar tends to accelerate weight and fat gains because it is easier to consume in massive amounts. Protein and fat are more filling and satisfying, which means that while people can still consume too much, they’ll generally stop when they’re full. Simple sugar doesn’t provide the same satiety cues, and there’s evidence sugar activates the brain’s pleasure centers. You’re wired to enjoy sugar; but when that evolutionary wiring was created sugar wasn’t available in the quantities it is now.
Throughout sport and nutrition it is important to consider performance and health independently. Sugar has a proven benefit for athletic performance, and in some circumstances a proven detriment to human health. But on an individual level, consuming sugar doesn’t mean you will experience both the positive and negative effects. In other words, consuming a sports drink to improve performance during a long training session doesn’t necessarily increase your chances of developing Type II diabetes.[blog_promo promo_categories=”coaching” ids=”” /]
Don’t get stumped by someone who challenges your consumption of sugar by correlating high sugar intake to a spike in insulin production or as a potential cause of insulin resistance. During exercise glucose transport into cells works differently than it does at rest.
When you polish off a whole package of Sweet Tarts at your desk, the spike in blood sugar (hyperglycemia) leads to increased insulin production in order to move that sugar out of the blood and into cells. But during exercise, muscle cells can remove glucose from the blood without an increase in insulin production. It is thought that chronic production of high amounts of insulin is partly to blame for insulin resistance in sedentary people who consume a lot of sugar. Exercise training has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, and even a single bout of exercise can mitigate acute hyperglycemia in people who have impaired insulin response. Here’s a good resource if you really want to dig into the science of exercise and insulin.
Simple is speedy
It doesn’t matter how much gasoline you have in your car. If you can’t deliver it to the engine as fast as the engine can burn it, you can’t drive at full power. Your body can burn fat, protein, and carbohydrate, but during exercise consuming simple sugar is the fastest way to obtain usable energy from food. Carbohydrate-rich sports nutrition products are designed to exit the stomach quickly. This is important because gastric emptying rates can dramatically influence the delay between ingestion and absorption. Foods higher in fat and protein stay in the stomach longer and are slower to be absorbed once they reach the small intestine. Some carbohydrate can also be absorbed directly in the mouth, before even reaching the stomach. On top of that, consuming multiple forms of sugar (glucose and fructose together, for instance) accelerates absorption (from 1 gram/minute to potentially 1.4-1.6 grams/minute) because different sugars use different gateways to move from the intestine to the bloodstream. More gates equals less waiting.
Sugar’s rapid rate of absorption doesn’t mean fat and protein have no role to play in sports nutrition. Both can provide usable energy, and in low- to moderate-intensity scenarios it can be beneficial to slow gastric emptying and energy absorption so you can use the energy you’re eating over a longer period of time. Generally speaking, the longer an event or training session, the more an athlete will benefit from incorporating fat and protein. In a criterium or 10k running race there’s no need for anything beyond simple sugar (if you need anything at all) because of the high intensity and short duration. At the other end of the spectrum, ultraendurance racers typically perform best by utilizing all macronutrients and a wide variety of flavors and textures.[blog_promo promo_categories=”camp” ids=”” /]
So, what about Gummy Bears?
If cycling’s World Champion stuffs his face with gummy bears should you do it, too? A single 17-piece serving of Haribo Gold Bears contains 140 calories, 132 of which are from carbohydrate. I have no idea what “two handfuls” equates to, but let’s say it was three servings, or about 51 pieces. That’s 398 calories from carbohydrate, or 99 grams worth. Sagan’s weight is listed as 73 kilograms (161 pounds), which means he consumed around 1.36 grams/kilogram of carbohydrate. Obviously there’s the potential for significant error in that calculation, as I have no idea if 73kg is an accurate weight for him currently, nor do we have an accurate count of the gummy bears. But as a ballpark carbohydrate intake, 1.36 g/kg is perfectly appropriate after racing 200 kilometers (approx. 125 miles) in 4:37:49.
Are there better sources of carbohydrate he could have chosen? Sure. The best post-exercise choices incorporate carbohydrate, electrolytes, and a little protein to accelerate glycogen replenishment. I doubt Peter Sagan relies entirely on gummy bears for recovery, but they certainly get the job done when you need some blood sugar to get through a podium presentation and interviews (after all, your brain needs glucose, too) before you can really focus on recovery.
Similarly, there are advantages to consuming sports drinks with carefully formulated osmolality values. And chews containing electrolytes and multiple sugar sources are a better choice than gummy bears and jellybeans during exercise, too. But real food – including candy and sugary soda – can play a role, especially if it means you’re more likely to actually consume calories when you need them.
Personally, I loved seeing Sagan wolf down handfuls of gummy bears. It should be a reminder to everyone that it’s easy to overestimate the value of making perfect sports nutrition choices. It’s important for most of your choices to be good ones, but sometimes you just want gummy bears.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS