© 2011 Nancy Appleton PhD & G.N. Jacobs
In the past year or so, my staff and I have fielded pretty much the same question from various endurance athletes at least five times – if I’m supposed to give up sugar how am I supposed to deal with my energy needs during training and racing?
Well, the answers to this question are imperfect at best, because sugar has completely infiltrated sports.
To recap our general nutritional position, EAT WHOLE FOODS as much as possible while engaging in as much CONSISTENT EXERCISE as possible. Athletes do at least half of this equation correctly: consistent exercise. But then after all the wind sprints, stadium steps, miles underfoot, miles under-wheel, four-a-days and/or intense sparring, many athletes will drag healthy bodies through a sweet sewer of sugary training food and sports drinks.
Each athlete that asked us about how to train or race got the same choices:
- Stop training and competing.
- Make peace with Gatorade, Powerade and/or that chewy bar.
- Find the best possible alternative healthy training food manufacturer.
- Load up on traditional snacks used by hikers, walkers and non-competitive bikers (water, trail mix, whole fruit, etc).
- Make your own training food by becoming intimate with your food processor.
QUITTING – Actually, this first choice is just a mean joke, because I completely understand competing and the value of getting out of the house. I even still have a few of my tennis trophies, so move it along and pretend I never said the word quit.
MAKE PEACE – I’m not stupid. The horrible foods and liquids pushed upon athletes by the large companies have become such a part of our athletic culture because of a combination of factors each tough to beat by themselves, but nearly impossible taken together.
Peer pressure rules. I may be the Original Anti-Sugar Lady since the Stone Age (1980 or so) and was appalled at the amount of sugar in a typical bottle of Gatorade (14 grams per 8oz. serving of the original green flavor) since learning about sugar in the years leading up to my first book Lick the Sugar Habit, but when my son played football and came home with a requirement that each player bring two bottles of the orange flavor for the next game I went to the store and contributed to the team.
In professional sports where Gatorade or whichever sports drink maker paid the most money for the exclusive promotional deal, I have no illusions that the health conscious catcher or running back or some other player whose function I barely understand wouldn’t get worked over by his teammates for not sharing from the Gatorade tank.
Sugar makes its way into these products mostly to cover up foul tasting minerals. The typical sports drink comes with tons of sodium and potassium for purposes of replacing electrolytes sweated out during hard workouts, which can affect nerve function. Naturally, sodium and potassium taste like salt and sugar covers the taste. The sports drink promotion machine justifies the sugar after the fact as providing extra energy.
Now why am I positing make peace as a potential viable solution to the conundrum of training food and drink?
I hate saying this – but once you factor out the changes to body chemistry for which I have spent 30 years on the warpath about, these products do their jobs quite well in the short term. Quick hits of energy and vital minerals help the athlete power his or her way through the race or game. These products are also highly portable a virtue that also helps explains why processed sports food is a billion dollar business that sustains itself with massive ad campaigns and exclusive relationships with various teams.
Portable products are very important in races because weight is an issue. A competitive cyclist going up the hill in the tenth stage of the Tour de France can’t carry the whole foods I will suggest in later sections on his bike, or in a backpack. An apple may weigh ten times as much as the tube of applesauce so graciously provided by the sport food manufacturer for much the same caloric intake. The apple may have more dietary fiber, which is why whole fruit can have tons of fructose and still be part of a healthy diet, but the weight differential when seconds count makes eating healthy in such competitive environments a hard call.
Now, I must say that for many sports there are workarounds that could allow the athlete to eat healthy and still crush all comers. In the case of the Tour de France (mentioned because one of our original questioners competes with the Garmin GPS bike team), there are entire support staffs of people in cars who drive up to their athletes, hand over the sports drink or chewy bar and help replace flat tires or broken wheels. A team that manages to get out from under a sponsorship contract with a food producer that uses more sugar than their competitors could use the support staff to pass over a baggie of trail mix (nuts, fruit, crackers – a fuel source created by hikers who may go the same distance, but have the time to enjoy the view) instead of a sugar-bomb disguised as an energy bar. But, money talks in all highly competitive sports.
One thing I can attest to is the power of exercise to delay the many health effects of too much sugar in the diet. As I wrote in every one of my books that needed an introduction, I juxtaposed lots of sugar, wheat and dairy that I didn’t know would harm me with enough hours of tennis to actually keep that chocolate from my hips most of the time. It is this power that allows me to present make peace as one possible solution to the athlete who needs to get through a marathon, an Ironman or even a long round of golf in the deep desert.
My competitive years came before the invention of Gatorade after which I became just a good recreational tennis player. So when I say that exercise delays the onset of the diseases that I and many other researchers have linked to our modern diet, I don’t mean that eating and drink these products should ever go beyond the athlete’s prime years. My experiences with the sugar, onion rings and other sludge that I worked off with some hard tennis told me (once I understood sugar) that the crap always catches up to you.
By the time I was forty or so, I still played quite a bit of tennis, but suffered allergies that sometimes kept me off the court. I freaked out anytime pollen got anywhere near me and don’t get me started on hibiscus flowers. I had nearly regular bouts of pneumonia and I was sometimes crabbier than I needed to be with my kids. So despite my regimen, I wasn’t healthy. Ending sugar helped put me in a place where nothing worked against my tennis, hiking and, for many years, stair climbing for keeping me healthy. The competitive cyclist mentioned above emailed us reporting decreased competitiveness – slower stage times and an all-around crummy feeling after a few years of being at the top of the game. We suggested to this man that he’d run out the string on his body’s ability to make peace with his training diet.
Making peace can only work with two provisos that MUST be applied. First, the athlete who uses such sugar-filled training food and drinks absolutely SHOULDN’T EAT SUGAR from other sources during a training cycle and should limit sugar during a down cycle. Part of my problem was that I may have used a few sports drinks in my later unhealthy years, but that I also ate sweets, cakes and above all else, chocolate at the same time. I overloaded my body and paid for it every time I banished my sick children to their rooms for fear that their colds would become pneumonia. If I had to choose now, I would omit the training food and drink and stick with the more pleasurable chocolate, but I will leave that decision up to you.
Secondly, an athlete who goes this route will need to go into a sugar-free life as soon as they retire from the sport. When we are young and still able to go out and play regardless of the consequences, we won’t need much health and nutritional advice. But, at some point the body needs to be well taken care of so we can still go outside and play. So, perhaps you’ve figured out with the options I present here that make peace is perhaps the worst choice?
FIND A HEALTHIER SUPPLIER – While I would prefer that the serious athlete bring apple slices, nuts (at least for the person who isn’t allergic), beans or some other mostly whole food to the game along with water and salt tablets, I realize that not every athlete can break the deals that may fund their sport. The next best thing is to search around for a manufacturer who does the best they can at limiting sugar, preservatives and other chemicals from their products.
I support whole foods rendered in a blender (see section below) as necessary, because some people just have trouble with solid food. In Suicide by Sugar, I took such meal replacement drinks like Ensure to task saying that the best solution for getting people who can’t eat their nutrition was to run a healthy meal through the blender. The nutrients and dietary fiber may be chopped up for consumption through a straw, but are still present. Not so with many processed foods, so finding a company that tries to have better food is a rare find.
We have a relationship with one such company – Hammer Nutrition – that promised on their website that their food was derived from whole foods that had been rendered in a food processor to make the pastes that come in those tubes or those drink bottles. They also promised that they don’t add extra sugar. In the interest of full disclosure, they publish our articles and sell our current book Suicide by Sugar and my staff and I suggest them to any athletes who ask about their training food problem.
Presumably, the Me-Too attitude in our business environment suggests that soon other training food companies will start selling healthier products. There may be some out now, so if Hammer Nutrition doesn’t work for you other companies are just a Google search away.
TRADITIONAL HIKING SNACKS – For many generations, hikers and other people who exercised for long periods without trying to win the race have packed along snacks that are mostly whole foods without succumbing to the bad things promised by the commercials. People who bring trail mix (usually a baggie with nuts, raisins, crackers and, regrettably, sometimes a small amount of M&Ms) usually manage to cover their energy needs as they climb or walk to the lake to fish. Others bring meat jerky (salted meat), which helps with the need for both salt and protein possibly eliminating the need for Gatorade’s three-stage system for before, during and after the game.
As I have said, there can be a portability issue for athletes who do actually have to win the race. Hikers, walkers and soldiers marching to the objective usually bring a large pack with them because the point of the journey is not to get there fast, but to get there at all. However, many sports do have support structures built in that ease the problem. Football teams keep their hydration gear on the sidelines. Bike teams, marathoners and tri-athletes all have staff who drive up and hand over the supplies. It is the same level of difficulty to hand over a can of trail mix, as it is to hand over Gatorade. Please consider this option.
MAKE YOUR OWN FOOD – Frankly, now that I think about it an athlete that stays up late into the night to run beans, peanuts, apple slices and other fruit through a blender seems like a horrible waste of time. True, the athlete in question will know what went into his or her food, but one of the points of modern life is that we specialize. The athlete competes, the writer writes and so on.
The athlete needs to train and trust in his support staff. But, there will always be a few that need to control everything, so knock yourself out. Whole foods do everything promised by the processed foods and have done so for thousands of years, before we even heard of Gatorade, Powerbar or even those nasty K-ration bars made by Hershey for World War Two. But, you still need someone in the kitchen making the healthy food for you.
My life up to this point says that whole foods and exercise are always better for people than the alternative. But, athletes have special concerns that make the transition to a sugar-free life somewhat difficult. I have attempted to provide choices that can help the athlete be healthy as well as champions. And just so you know, I will have more to say about Gatorade and other sport drinks in my upcoming book Killer Colas, due agonizingly soon from Square One.