As our nation faces an obesity epidemic, a common topic of interest in social media, news articles, and conversations is the negative side effects of sugar. Sugar is apparently addicting, causes inflammation, and feeds cancer—we would be better to do away with the toxic sweetness. While there are threads of truth to the claims, the perception of sugar is often taken out of context and applied as blanket statements to everyone.
The first question I ask when someone has a question about sugar is: what is their definition of sugar? Any carbohydrate broken down completely is "sugar" and includes glucose, galactose, and fructose. For example, milk contains glucose and galactose combined (lactose); fruit contains fructose; table sugar contains glucose and fructose. So, there are both natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars and added sugars can have different effects on the body and be absorbed differently. Sources of natural sugars have other components to slow absorption. Like protein or fiber, added sugars may cause a rapid spike of blood sugar and insulin to put the sugar away in cells. Those who consume too much added sugar are at a higher risk for obesity and chronic low-grade inflammation—which is also linked to diabetes and heart disease (1).
Names for added sugars on food labels include:
The bottom line here: natural sugars and added sugars should be thought of differently. Added sugars should be eaten in moderation.
Is sugar bad? The problem with putting food in good and bad categories is the potential to miss the big picture. Many foods have both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory components, and nutritional balance is important. Food can be nutritionally-dense (eggs, for example) yet should still be eaten in moderation. While added sugar comes up short on nutrients, it does have a role to play in performance.
Since added sugars (also called simple sugars) are easily absorbed, they can be an excellent source of fuel for prolonged exercise, such as on the mountain. Remember, carbohydrate is the preferred fuel source for high-intensity exercise, and it plays a strong role in continuous exercise (greater than 90 minutes) (2). Read more about carbohydrates here. Since they are easily absorbed, easy-to-digest carbohydrates are the best fuel source when eating less than an hour before exercise. They also may be eaten during exercise for continued energy, while creating a lower risk for stomach upset than would eating a more complex carbohydrate.
During a hunt, simple sugars will benefit you the most an hour before or during periods of high intensity (very steep inclines). During the rest of the hunt, complex carbohydrates will provide more nutrition and a more steady flow of energy. Try various foods out while scouting to determine which foods you enjoy and how your body responds to them prior to hunting season.
Beyond the sports nutrition aspect, sugar also can be enjoyable. Consistency in nutrition matters. Eat nutritious, fueling foods most of the time, and enjoy sweets mindfully—without the guilt or entitlement mentalities. The problem is when we use sugar as a crutch or in excess.
How much is too much? Nutrition recommendations generally should not be used as blanket statements. They are most accurate when tailored to individual factors, such as a person's medical history and exercise level. Those who are especially active will utilize more "sugar" than will someone who isn't. Excess sugar can contribute to unmediated inflammation, obesity, and chronic disease. As the average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar in one year, or three pounds (six cups) each week, likely anything is an improvement (3). The USDA Dietary Guidelines indicates that less than 10% of your calories should come from added sugars. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that would equate to 200 calories=50 g or 13 teaspoons of sugar per day. I would say that is a pretty liberal limit for most days for most people. During periods of greater physical activity, calorie needs are higher, as well as your 10% recommended limit.
Know your body and how you feel and perform with various foods. Maybe you prefer to eat dried cherries instead of energy chews or gummy bears during a tough climb, and that is okay. I would argue eating added sugar in limited amounts is also. Avoid falling into an all or nothing mentality. Food is fuel, so I recommend eating in a way that is nourishing, sustainable, and avoids extremes.
- Rachel Patrick, RDN, LD, CSCS
1. Brown, M. 2017. Does sugar cause inflammation in the body? Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/sugar-and-inflammation
2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Retrieved from https://www.eatrightpro.org/-/media/eatrightpro-files/practice/position-and-practice-papers/position-papers/nutritionathleticperf.pdf
3. Department of Health and Human Services. How much sugar do you eat? You may be surprised! Health promotion in motion. Retrieved from https://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/nhp/documents/sugar.pdf