should you go sugar-free

The Athlete's Guide to Sugar

Why fit bodies should think about the sweet stuff differently.

You’ve heard it all when it comes to the not-so-sweet side of the white stuff: Sugar can up your risk for heart disease, weight gain, and metabolic disease; some doctors call it the new ‘sitting’; the World Health Organization supports a 20 percent tax on soda and surgery drinks to curb obesity.

Plus, you’re probably eating too much of it. While the American Heart Association says women should take in no more than 6 added teaspoons (24g) of sugar a day, and men no more than nine (36g), the average person consumes 22 teaspoons (88g). It’s enough to make a fit body go cold turkey.

But is cutting out sugar the solution? Not quite, says Melina Jampolis, M.D., author of The Doctor on Demand Diet.

“We’ve vilified fat and saturated fat in the past. This time around, I really want to make sure we don’t make one food or nutrient a scapegoat for all of our health problems,” she says. “Nutrition is not all or nothing.”

What Is Sugar, Really?

Added sugars are the type you find in flavored yogurts, your favorite Starbucks drink, or cookies. This sugar gets absorbed in your blood stream quickly, creating dips and spikes that send energy out of whack and make cravings fierce. Refined grains, found in most highly-processed food, also break down just like sugar, points out Cassie Bjork, R.D. (That means, to your body, white bread is basically like dessert.)

Then there are natural sugars, found in dairy products, whole grains, and vegetables. The difference? Berries and kale come in a handy package as nature intended—with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (to slow down digestion).

And while all of us could benefit from cutting back on added sugars, healthy carbs supply your body and brain with the energy you need to power through tough workouts. “You don’t want your body allocating its resources toward trying to make you feel good enough to function,” says Bjork.

Athletes’ muscles run on sugar, adds Jampolis. Consider these your guidelines.

1) Fuel up: If you have 30 to 45 minutes pre-workout, it’s crunch time to make energy available to working muscles. You’ll need a sugar that can be quickly broken down and absorbed in your bloodstream, says Jampolis. Something with natural sugars, like a banana, is a top choice. Runner-up: a bar that’s a bit higher in sugar. Larabar Minis or Bites can fit the bill; their sugar comes mainly from dates. 

2) Rethink that sports drink. You don’t need to sip these unless you’re performing 45 to 60 minutes or longer of endurance exercise. Otherwise water is fine, points out the American Council on Exercise.

3) Replenish the right way. Muscles need to re-up their glycogen (or carb) stores post-workout (through foods like fruit, sweet taters, or whole grains) and they need amino acids (which you get through proteins like meat, fish, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese) in order to recover and repair. A simple sugar paired with protein is ideal, says Jampolis. Think a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. One example? Chocolate milk, says research.

Even if you’re not working out, to curb blood sugar spikes, Bjork recommends pairing protein, carbs, and fats. Eggs, spinach, and avocado work; so does a salad with olive oil vinaigrette topped with salmon.

4) Splurge accordingly. If you’re going to indulge (pancake breakfast, anyone?) make it post-workout. “Simple carbs are better at replenishing muscle after exercise compared to complex carbs. So if you’re going to eat sugar, make it within 30 minutes of a hard core workout,” says Jampolis. Eating in this time frame does the least amount of damage, she says: Excess sugar will be soaked up by your muscles.