Sugar Sense

22 08 2011
Try to minimize sugar in your diet, not eliminate it. The occasional dessert or candy after a meal is fine


By Monique Ryan
Her Sports + Fitness

We’ve all done it. Finished a tough workout or big race and rewarded ourselves with a pancake-sized peanut butter cookie, a gooey fudge brownie or our very own slice (two forks be damned!) of chocolate cake with double chocolate frosting.

For most of us, sugar is a way to celebrate. It’s what we turn to when we’re feeling blue, and our go-to snack when we need an afternoon pick-me-up. So much so that Americans eat an average of 150 pounds of sugar per year, often followed by a heavy dose of guilt.

But is all the self-reproach warranted? Is sugar the dietary evil we’ve been conditioned to believe it is? Not exactly. But sticking to a healthy eating plan does mean exercising some self-control.

Sifting Through the Sugars

“Sugar” commonly refers to simple carbohydrates composed of single and double carbohydrate molecules. Glucose, fructose and galactose are monosaccharides or single carbohydrate molecules that are the building blocks for carbohydrates. Disaccharides, on the other hand, are composed of two sugar molecules and include sucrose (table sugar) and lactose (milk sugar).

These types of sugars fall into one of two categories: they’re either added sugars or naturally occurring sugars, a natural byproduct of foods not added in processing, preparation or at the table.

The key to smart sugar consumption is recognizing the good from the bad. That is, knowing which sugars provide nutrients and which offer only empty calories.

The Good

Naturally occurring sugars tend to fall into the good category. Fructose is the natural sugar found mainly in fruits, which are packed with nutrients and provide carbohydrate for fuel. Fruits are excellent sources of vitamins A and C, fiber, potassium, carotenoids and other disease-fighting phytochemicals.

While all fruits are nutritious, some fruits are super-nutritious. Tropical fruits like mangos, papayas, kiwifruit and guava are exceptionally high in antioxidants. Carotenoids are also found in deep-colored fruits such as cantaloupe, nectarines and apricots. Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits are excellent sources of vitamin C, as are strawberries.

All these nutrients let you feel good about eating fructose. But good can turn bad when fructose is used as an additive in other foods like sugared yogurt, ice cream, sugared cereals and many processed foods. In this form, the sweetener offers little to no nutritional value and is a major ingredient in foods that provide empty calories, giving you energy but not the essential nutrients your body requires for good health.

Lactose is another naturally occurring sugar with a variety of essential nutrients. Milk and yogurt are great sources of calcium. Three servings of milk or yogurt a day provide the recommended daily amount of calcium most women need.

Lactose-intolerant individuals, who don’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase to break down milk sugar, can get their calcium from specially formulated lactose-free milk in which lactose is already broken down. They can also take lactase supplements before consuming dairy products. Yogurt has lower lactose levels than milk and is generally better tolerated.

Milk and yogurt are also good sources of vitamin D, another nutrient important for healthy bones.

The Not-so-good

No huge surprises here, either. Sucrose, or table sugar, is a refined form of sugar mainly found in desserts and snack foods with limited nutritional value. Cheaper and sweeter than sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is produced by chemically altering cornstarch. HFCS is about 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. Some HFCS fructose levels reach 90 percent, for even sweeter flavor.

HFCS is added to a variety of foods, including baked goods, breads, cereals, ketchup, soft drinks and many other items that may surprise you (read nutrition labels carefully). One-third of all the sugar consumed in the U.S. comes from the HFCS in soft drinks and other sweets with no redeeming nutritional value.

Recently, some nutrition experts have raised health concerns about HFCS, linking increased intake of HFCS to the growing rate of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. Other experts counter that the empty calories in HFCS foods contribute to obesity and weight gain, and these health concerns are not inherent to the sweetener itself. More research is needed on the direct effects of added sugars and HFCS on obesity and related diseases. But all experts agree that added sugars provide empty calories, without fiber or other nutrients.

Checking food labels carefully is critical. For example, good-for-you fruit juice contains 100 percent juice; not-so-good juice is generally a fruit blend that contains HFCS. And keep in mind that even real fruit juice is higher in simple sugar than its whole fruit counterpart and provides zero fiber. In other words, you’re better off eating the apple than you are drinking apple juice.

If you drink juice, opt for color to benefit from more antioxidants and phytochemicals. So, reach for purple grape juice before white grape juice.

How Much is Too Much?

There’s no denying sugar makes foods more palatable, and if you’re eating a well-balanced diet, you don’t have to eliminate it from your food choices. The question, then, is how much added sugar is too much?

If sugar calories replace appropriate servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, the quality of your diet suffers, which could lead to diminished athletic performance. The World Health Organization recommends limiting free sugars (added sugars and those naturally in fruit juice) to no more than 10 percent of daily calories.

Try to minimize sugar in your diet, not eliminate it. The occasional dessert or candy after a meal is fine, as part of a well-balanced diet. If your active lifestyle requires 2,400 calories a day, your added sugar intake (not including naturally occurring sugars in foods such as fruit and dairy) ideally should not exceed 240 calories. If it does, cut back on your sugar intake the next day to keep things in balance.

What to Look For

The Nutrition Facts label does not distinguish between added sugar and natural sugars, but you can tell whether added sugars are a major part by reading the ingredient list. Remember, the closer the ingredient is to the beginning of the list, the more there is of it in the product.

Watch Out for These Added Sugars:

  • Beet Juice
  • Brown Rice Syrup
  • Cane Syrup
  • Corn Sweetener
  • Crystalline Fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated Cane Juice
  • Fructose
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Invert Sugar
  • Malt Syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Sucrose

Sugar as Energy Food

Many popular sports drinks and gels contain glucose, glucose polymers, maltodextrin, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup as a carbohydrate source. These provide for fast absorption to quickly raise blood glucose levels when fuel stores begin to run low.

No one carbohydrate source has been shown to be superior to another in absorption and improving performance. In fact, a mix of carbohydrates may be your best bet. Avoid drinks in which fructose is the sole carbohydrate source as they may cause gastrointestinal distress because of how your body metabolizes this sugar.

Following is a look at some popular energy products that include a blend of carbohydrates.

Sports Drinks With Multiple Carb Sources

Product Carb source Carb grams
Sports Drinks (8-oz serving):
Accelerade Sucrose, fructose, maltodextrin 17
All Sport Fructose, sucrose 19
Cytomax Fructose, maltodextrin, polylactate, glucose 19
Endura Glucose polymers, fructose 15
Gatorade Glucose polymers, fructose 14
GU2O Maltodextrin, fructose 13
Powerade Fructose, sucrose 14
Ultima Maltodextrin 6
Gels (1 packet):
Cliff Shot Brown rice syrup 37
GU Maltodextrin, fructose 30
Power Gel Maltodextrin, fructose 33

Monique Ryan, M.S., R.D., is the author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes (VeloPress 2002), and Performance Nutrition for Team Sports (VeloPress, March 2005). She served on the Athens 2004 Performance Enhancement Teams for USA Triathlon, Women’s Road Cycling, and USA Synchronized Swimming. For personalized sports nutrition planning, go to




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