Sugar... What Is It Really?

Australians, particularly young Australians, have been found to consume too much sugar. Though dentists have long urged for reduced intakes to support oral health, it now appears that there may also be links with increased risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. So, should our young athletes be cutting back on the sweet stuff?

Cake - The Youth Academy

Firstly, it's important to clarify exactly what we mean by sugar. In reality, we should be saying 'sugars', as the term, in fact, refers to two different categories; natural and refined sugars. Natural sugars are those occurring as a natural component of grains, dairy, fruit and vegetables, and are typically associated with vital health promoting nutrients. On the other hand, refined sugars are the result of extracting the sugars found from natural sources, and these offer few other nutrients. Food industry definitions of refined sugar tend to exclude sugars such as brown rice syrup, maple syrup and coconut sugar, but this is just a marketing ploy by taking advantage of a lack of regulation of the term 'refined sugar', and in reality, all these sugars are nutritionally equal.

As you may well have guessed, it is not the natural sugars that research suggests we cut back on, as these are intrinsic to foods that are the foundation of a healthy diet. Rather, it's the refined sugars that have been associated with dental caries, obesity, heart disease and diabetes risk. However, this does not mean it's necessary to swear off the sweet stuff and join the 'I Quit Sugar' bandwagon...

Rather, it is an excessive refined sugar intake that has been associated with these outcomes. In 2015, the World Health Organization published guidelines recommending refined sugar intake contribute less than 10% to daily energy intake. You might say, albeit a bit dramatic, that it’s the dose that makes the poison


Another factor to consider is how the refined sugar is being consumed. Though all refined sugars themselves may be equal, the context of their consumption is not. Australians consume the majority of refined sugars from nutrient poor foods such as confectionery, baked goods and sweetened drinks. This is a vastly different from using refined sugars to consume nutritionally important foods. For example, a drizzle of honey can make the world of difference to a bowl of porridge and is a great way to get some whole grains in at the start of the day. As a general rule, to meet guidelines, we encourage saving nutrient poor, high sugar foods for enjoyment on occasion and not worrying too much about the amount in more nutritious products.

However, as with other public health messages, the 'limit refined sugar' advice doesn't play out as nicely in the world of sports nutrition. Quite simply, sugar can hold an important role in sports performance. As a simple carbohydrate, sugar is quickly digested and absorbed, and can, therefore, play an important role in fueling for and recovering from physical activity

This could be achieved by use of high carbohydrate foods, however, these often lack the versatility and convenience that can be achieved through a small addition of sugar, and can mean much larger food intakes are necessary. For instance, if you remove the refined sugar from chocolate milk, you've lost the carbohydrate necessary to replenish glycogen stores. Instead, you'd be looking at consuming milk and 2 slices of bread to make up for the missing carbohydrate and hit your post-workout recovery nutrition goals

Sports Drink - The Youth Academy

Another situation in sports nutrition where refined sugars play a starring role is during high-intensity exercise lasting 60 minutes or more. The quick-digesting refined sugar in sports drinks is essential to top up fuel stores to prolong the onset of fatigue and maintain high-intensity performance. In this situation, even if natural sources of sugar were logistically possible, their slow digestion would limit their effectiveness as a fuel source, and potentially lead to some unwanted gastrointestinal side effects. The key here is in applying sports drinks appropriately, in that they should be treated like a supplement and utilised in long duration, high –intensity activity, and not as an everyday drink.

The bottom line is refined sugars are nothing to fear, and at The Academy, we believe that by using refined sugars tactically to consume nutritious foods and meet sports nutrition goals, athletes can meet refined sugar guidelines and get the most out of their performance.

Nick Maier