Sugar

Is soft drink the new sports drink for junior sport?

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I usually don’t feel alarmed too often when it comes to food, but a recent observation at a children’s sports camp left me certainly shocked, and genuinely disappointed.

As you may have guessed, this disappointment relates to soft drink, and children.  I know there is an entire aisle in the supermarket dedicated to sugary, bubbly drinks but I never really thought about who actually buys and drinks this stuff….until I saw it with my own eyes – and I didn’t like it.

When I was a child, the only time we ever had a bottle of soft drink in the fridge was for someone's birthday or Christmas!  It was a special occasion drink, and contributed to the excitement associated with kids’ parties and resultant sugar highs!  I'm just not quite sure when carbonated water with sugar and additives became an everyday drink? 

Research shows that a large proportion of the population’s sugar intake comes from sweetened beverages.  This includes children, but I naively have never really taken much notice of what kids drink.  I am pretty aware of the amount of sugar that my own children consume from foods and drinks, but I am not over-the-top when it comes to avoidance.  I think that being a dietitian the assumption is that kids’ lunchboxes will be filled with only organic beans and kale crisps – so far from the truth!  They eat what I would consider pretty standard school-age fare, including whatever they want when they are at a party (I don’t send them with a personalized bag of chopped vegetables!).  But one food habit I am particularly solid on with my own children is the sugar-rich drinks, and I have now discovered this does make me a bit of an outlier when it comes to family fluid habits.  

I am usually not one to bother too much about what other people are eating or drinking - adults can make their own food choices and we all have different needs at different times so I am certainly not one to judge.  But I couldn’t look away, and to be honest felt really sad, when I saw the drinks popping out of the childrens’ lunchboxes at the junior camp.  I just happened to be in attendance over the lunch break and noticed a group of girls  who each had a can of soft drink in hand.  I was then compelled to look around me a little bit more and honestly, I was truly shocked at the number of soft drink cans I saw.  There was no canteen at the venue, so all of these primary school-age children had been sent to a sports camp, where they were going to be active all day, with soft drink packed in their bag?!  I don’t understand.....

I am not sure whether the perception is that these kids will be active all day so a bit of sugar won’t hurt for energy, or that they need extra fluid for hydration so throw a can in?   I totally get it that packing super-nutritious lunches everyday for kids is a challenge with busy lifestyles, but I don't understand the need to add a can of drink – especially for kids doing sport.  Even traditional sports drinks aren't necessary most of the time for active kids (see my article Hydration is important, but what is the role of sports drinks and electrolytes and who needs them?)

The obvious downside of sweetened beverages is the sugar content, but we also need to consider the additives and acidity - the combination of sugar, acidity and reduced saliva production with exercise leaves young teeth exposed and particularly vulnerable to decay.  

Water, milk and dairy-based fruit smoothies are all great options to hydrate and fuel young athletes.   

Active kids don’t need sugar in a can for energy to run and play. 

 

Keep an eye out for my next Thoughts post about infused water and making water more appetising if you don't love plain water. 

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How 'food porn' marketing of health foods misleads us towards temptation

We see them on social media every day - gorgeous food photos, stacked and styled to perfection with delicious looking fresh ingredients. But are these artistic creations of fritters, stacks, smoothies and bowls really good for us? If we are using these beautiful bowls of goodness as inspiration for our daily meals are we doing ourselves a favour or doing more harm than good? 

I am relatively new to Instagram, but I feel more and more concerned about the way nutritious foods are portrayed and promoted. Others share my concerns!  Nina Mills from What's for Eats (an experienced Instagrammer!) has written Why I post food photos on Instagram that is well worth a read and I certainly share many of her sentiments. 

Below are some things to think about as you scroll through your favourite food photos.....

Is that really healthy?

The two health food photos that frustrate me the most are breakfast related – pancakes and smoothie bowls. Although those high protein maple and berry pancakes look amazing and sound super-healthy, if you replicated this at home you may be shocked at the sugar content. Same for smoothie bowls – some of the ingredients may be nutritious, but there is also often a lot of hidden sugars. Nut butters, seeds, dried fruit, coconut, avocado…..all nutritious ingredients but the energy can quickly add up. Natural sugar is still sugar (think maple syrup, rice malt syrup, agave, etc.) and not a more nutritious substitute for table sugar. Your protein bliss balls washed down with a cacao salted caramel smoothie could very well be equivalent to breakfast and lunch put together!  *You can read more about natural sugars in my blog post 'The Great Sugar Con....'

Size matters

Let’s face it, most Instagram serves are not small. Unless you are a 120kg+ rugby player, that plate may not be the best amount for you.  Fine dining portions don't always look as enticing as a platter-sized meal.  Large portions that look tasty can make healthy food more appealing, but the serves depicted are not going to suit everyone. 

Eating well can be boring

I don’t tend to share photos of my daily breakfast. A standard bowl of porridge with yoghurt and fruit/nuts is probably not going to create too much excitement on Instagram. We want to see fun and interesting food that excites our tastebuds!  But as Nina mentions in her post, seeing images of everyday foods can be useful to help us to feel ok when we aren't whipping up exotic dishes three times per day.

To eat well day-to-day, you don’t need to be making corn fritters with avocado salsa every morning. Social media images can create pressure on people to spend hours in the kitchen using expensive ingredients. As much as I hate to say it, healthy eating in most households is not particularly flamboyant, especially as part of a busy lifestyle. Many of us could put in the effort to make our meals a bit more exciting, but we don’t need the extravagance of healthy eating portrayals on social media. 

Social media can provide some great food inspiration, but don’t be blinded by the dazzle and hype. Think about what is in your food, your individual needs and food that makes you feel good - and enjoy an over-the-top over-styled Instagrammable feast now and then! 

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Do you really need carbohydrates to train and perform, and are some better than others?

Carbs are evil. Aren't they? We are regularly reminded of this by sensationalist headlines suggesting sugar is toxic and white refined sugar is positively poison. The rationale behind these accusations is perhaps not without merit.  Over time the availability and intake of sugar-filled foods and drinks has sky-rocketed. Excess consumption of overly processed, low-nutrient foods can have a negative impact on our health. But does this make refined sugars lethal on their own? And should we really be using the words ‘sugar’ and ‘carbohydrate’ interchangeably. 

What starts with a jump onto the anti-sugar bandwagon can progress into joining the anti-carb club. Working in sports nutrition I am increasingly concerned about the number of athletes who take these messages to the extreme. Sure, if your health and well-being would benefit from losing weight then reducing carbohydrate and sugar can help. But it still doesn’t mean you need to eliminate carbs, or sugar, completely. Nor does it mean that replacing refined sugar with 'natural' sugar is any better for you. It really comes down to working out the best amount and types of carbohydrate to suit your individual needs. If you are someone who likes to keep fit and active, then cutting out carbs is not likely to do you any favours when it comes to training results and performance.            

Here’s why…..                                                                                               

Fuel

Yes, you can train your body to use fat better as a fuel by eating more fat, but does this improve energy levels and performance? No. Fat is pretty useless at fueling higher intensity efforts. Carbohydrates are far more effective when you need to work hard. 

Brain function

Stable blood glucose levels help to keep your brain fueled, helping with concentration, co-ordination and judgement – all pretty important for most types of athletic pursuits.

Muscle gains

If you are training for improved muscle condition, strength and size, carbohydrate can provide the energy to help this happen, in conjunction with adequate protein. Well planned carbohydrate intake won’t just turn to fat, but will be used effectively by the body to enhance muscle mass gains. 

Gut health

By choosing nutrient-dense, fibre-rich carbohydrate sources you will be providing your digestive system with the nutrients to feed your good gut bugs and keep them active, plus fibre to promote healthy nutrient absorption and bowel habits.

Immune function

Carbohydrate has been shown to have a positive effect on immune system for those doing regular or heavy training.  Exercise creates stress, but stable blood glucose levels can reduce the body's stress response and carbohydrate has been found to be effective in counteracting immune depression following exercise.

 

If you like to train, carbohydrates are your friend (even bread!). Get the portions, type and timing of intake right and carbohydrate will help you to get the best out of your training and performance. Look out for my next post where I will discuss the best types of carbohydrate foods for an active lifestyle. In the meantime you might like to take a look at a previous post 'The 10 best wheat and gluten-free carbohydrate foods if you train a lot'.

 

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The Great Sugar Con - why 'refined sugar-free' is a waste of time

It has raspberries, so it must be healthy.....

It has raspberries, so it must be healthy.....

‘Refined Sugar-Free, Gluten-Free Choc Caramel Cupcake’.  This was the latest ‘free-from’ delicacy that popped up on my screen, one of many that I see daily.  I can’t help but cringe, and rather than making me salivate these images just make me more and more agitated.  Refined sugar-free treats are everywhere, from raw slices, to bliss balls, to smoothies to cakes.   These creations look absolutely delicious and of course they are touted as guilt-free as well as sugar-free - but are they either?  They are often promoted by a celebrity or nutritionist or the latest sugar-free café or recipe book, to convince us of their goodness.  So how do the creators manage to formulate alternative options that are made from healthy ingredients and match the textures and taste of the real deal??  How is it possible to cut out all the wheat, animal products and sugar while achieving such remarkable taste, texture and visual results. 

Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we are all being conned - big time.  The reason these ‘free-from’ treats look and taste so superb is because in fact they do contain sugar, and often lots of it.  But how can that be so, when they are labelled sugar-free.  Look a little more closely – ‘refined sugar-free' does not equal free from sugar.  It simply means the sugar is not in the white powder form, everyday table sugar that is labelled as everything from dangerous to toxic.  But there is no limitation on the huge number of sugars that are considered ‘natural’, or not refined, and these are often used amply.    I’m sorry, but it is impossible to make a cupcake taste evenly remotely like a cupcake without adding sugar. 

Pick up many of the trendy low-sugar recipe books and you will find the widespread use of products like rice malt syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc.  If you asked the cafes and bakers the ingredients of their ‘’free-from’’ caramel cupcakes you would most likely find the same thing.  I honestly don’t know how the promoters of these products feel comfortable, knowing that their products contain just as much sugar, if not more, than the traditional product counterparts.  Maybe because 'no sugar' sells.  Even if it is a misrepresentation, or in fact a blatant lie.

For example, just flicking through some online recipes from a well known nutritionist and quickly came across a Choc Coconut Cupcake recipe.  Sounds innocent enough, except that the recipe makes 15 and contains a whopping 3 cups of coconut sugar in the icing - nearly ¼ cup coconut sugar PER cupcake!  But it is still technically refined sugar-free.  Or another website about quitting sugar that simply uses rice malt syrup instead of white sugar to make it sugar-free. (For more details about what coconut sugar and rice malt syrup really are, have a read of my previous post The facts about sugar - are natural sugars really healthier than white?)  Education on Sugar 101 is seriously lacking.  The other downside is that many of these recipes can be complicated to make and you may be wasting your time and effort thinking you are making the healthier option.

Of course overconsumption of refined sugar is a serious problem.  I just read in the paper today some data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that boys aged 14-18 years are consuming on average 92 grams per day (nearly 20 teaspoons) of free sugar (and 38 teaspoons/day in total), with much of this coming from soft drinks alone.  This is quite alarming considering that WHO recommends we aim for less than 12 teaspoons of free sugar, or less than 6 for dental health.  Products that contain pretty much just sugar with no other nutritional value, like soft drinks, are a major contributor to free sugar intake.  But if you think you are doing your best to reduce sugar by choosing the organic low-refined options you may not be doing yourself any favours.   Natural syrups and unrefined sugars are still considered free sugars, and although claimed to provide nutrients, the trace amounts are pretty much negligible (other than honey, but you still don’t’want to overdo it).  Perfect example, a small drizzle of honey on some porridge is not going to over-do your sugar intake for the day and can add to the enjoyment of an otherwise nutrient-dense meal.  However using honey in a refined sugar free choc honeycomb cupcake that is also loaded with other ‘natural’ sugars is probably not a great representation of a healthy option. 

Bottom line – many of us should reduce our total sugar intake, not just white sugar.  Think back 50 years where something sweet was enjoyed wholeheartedly on a special occasion, but not everyday.  When you do indulge, choose something you really like that is going to satisfy you.  If  the refined sugar-free raw raspberry slice from the vegan café does it for you then go for it, or you may be happier with a good old-fashioned piece of home-made cake now and again.  Choosing refined-sugar free does not guarantee lower sugar and higher nutrient content.  Don’t be fooled - most of the ‘refined sugar-free' treats should be treated the same as a piece of regular chocolate mud cake or a chocolate brownie.

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Image by Whitney - originally posted to Flickr as Chocolate Cupcakes w/ Raspberry Buttercream, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10390035 (may or may not be refined sugar-free?)

Kids' party food - go healthy or sugar-laden free-for-all?

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This post has absolutely nothing to do with sports nutrition, as my nutrition focus has switched to kids party fare with my son's recent birthday.  If you have ever known a 5 year old, then you probably understand that when you are 5, birthdays are a big deal.  We had two small parties and co-ordination of catering was required for both.  My biggest dilemma when it came to planning was whether to go super healthy or stick with traditional.  As a dietitian I feel a responsibility to a degree to provide some nourishment, but then I don't want my kids to feel like their parties aren't quite as exciting and just full of everyday foods either. 

One party option was the local pub, a child-friendly venue with a fantastic playground and low-maintenance for the host parents, BUT as you would imagine, there were no date & chia balls or frozen fruit pops on the pub catering menu!  So my dilemma was this - have a party at home with the risk of inclement weather and 12 kinder kids and toddler siblings squashed into a space designed to really only cater well for 5 or 6......or head to the pub.  Home party means healthier menu, pub means typical party fare from packets and either fried or mostly pastry.

I was torn...the pub menu wasn't really negotiable, other than the additional fruit platter I could order.  I love a  party at home, but last year's proved to be challenging when it poured rain all day and we were stuck indoors.  However a home party allowed total control of the menu, and the preparation of at least a few healthy options.  I swung to and fro and deliberated on my decision, but in the end the low maintenance pub won out.

I know there may be some of you reading this who are horrified to think I would expose my children to such toxic food.  I also know there are many parents, and party venues, who go the whole distance when it comes to healthy parties - organic, raw, no sugar, no nuts*, no dairy.   That's great if you can make it exciting.  I am not sure that kids get quite as excited about high-fibre bran muffins as they would blue cupcakes with sprinkles!  Or maybe I'm not being creative enough??  I know for myself that many of the special memories of parties were related to the food.  If the food at a party is the same as what a child gets in their lunch box every day then it wouldn't be a party would it?   I believe in the fun of parties and enjoying special foods, especially when it comes to birthdays. 

*When catering for children you do need to be careful when it comes to nuts and other allergies.  There were two children out of 15 with nut allergies on the day, and avoiding nuts in party foods is pretty standard these days. 

So, the pub party food it was, although I couldn't help myself and ordered a fruit platter to go with it!  I didn't think the kids would touch the fruit, but to my surprise they actually had a good go at it.  And do you know what?  Even with all the high fat, processed foods available, most kids didn't actually eat that much of it.  Children seem to be so much better than adults at regulating intake, and have a great sense of hunger and appetite.  At a birthday party there are usually lots more exciting things to do than sit around eating all day.  So maybe that's the big tip for kids parties, make sure there are some activities on the go and they may not eat that much sugar anyway.  Oh, and you probably don't need to serve soft drink or juice.  Water is perfect, there is probably going to be enough sugar in everything else.  No soft drink also means no artificial colours too.

When it comes to parties, I do have a concern about the amount of artificial additives consumed by kids, so my effort to make the party fare healthier was to use natural food colourings and use lollies in the lolly bags without added flavours/colourings.  The lollies were easy, but the natural food colourings were a new experience, especially with my history of regular cake making and use of super-concentrated food colourings.  My Octonauts Amazon Adventure cake, as requested by my son about 6 months prior to his party, required both blue and green food colouring.  One word to describe natural food colourings - pale.  Unless you use almost the whole bottle at $10 a pop.  In the end, I kept on adding and managed to get a reasonable colour, see below (minus the Octonauts who were yet to be added).

Now for the second party, the family gathering, which was straight after the pub.  I love home parties and planning the menus, and my philosophy for home is to incorporate traditional party foods, with a few healthier options on offer (a sushi/rice paper roll platter and fruit salad).  I don't try to mess with delicious traditions in an attempt to make them healthier, by substituting with spelt flour or coconut oil, I let everyone enjoy party foods as they are meant to be (other than the colours).  At least if you some of the options are home-made it will help with reducing the level of processing and intake of additives.  As a dietitian I sometimes feel a bit of pressure, or feel like I am being judged by what I provide at children's parties, or in their lunchboxes for that matter......but in the end it comes down to enjoying a range of food and avoiding 'good' or 'bad' food labels with youngsters who are developing their relationship with food. 

So in summary I think parties are great!   Traditional party foods are fun, watch the artificial stuff though and maybe throw in a few healthier options as the kids may actually enjoy them.  Or they may be so busy they don't eat much at all.  Occasional party foods are totally fine, HOWEVER, the big issue is that young children can end up going to A LOT of parties.  If you are going to a party nearly every weekend, all those party food add up, and that's where I can see the value in providing healthier party foods.  But how do you know how many parties your guests are going to that weekend?  My strategy this year to help the parents out was to only put a small number of lollies in the lolly bags so that what is eaten at the party is done at the party, and the sugar intake doesn't continue on for weeks after via lolly bags bursting at the seams.  My boys have about 4 lolly bags in the cupboard that they are gradually trying eat their way through, one lolly at a time! 

The important thing is for everyone to enjoy the party, from planning, to preparation, to playing!  Your decision to provide more or less healthy options will depend on a range of factors individual to you and your guests.  Make choices that create the least amount of stress and maximum amount of fun!

 

Carbohydrates and sugars for athletes during exercise - type, total amount and teeth

Are home-made carbohydrate snacks better than gels?

Are home-made carbohydrate snacks better than gels?

Let's face it, most people eat too much sugar.  Far more sugar than our bodies need for energy levels and health.  But if you are an endurance athlete, your body needs carbohydrate, which ultimately breaks down to sugar.  Your body needs sugar during  long duration exercise to perform at its best.  If you are a strength athlete you need some carbohydrate too.  When it comes to performance, the key is to consume the right type of carbohydrate, at the right times and in the right amounts.  Not all carbohydrates and sugars are equal, but neither are individual needs, and athletes often need a mix of sugars that will be different to someone who doesn't train.   We talk about carbohydrates and sugars, but, this doesn’t mean eating a bag of lollies every day, weighed to the gram.  Far from it.  Not all sugars are equal and there is even more to the story if you train a lot.

 

WHAT IS SUGAR?

The word sugar automatically creates visions of sugar coated sweets, lolly pops and coloured sprinkles.  The other images that may come to an athlete’s mind with regard to sugar are carbohydrate gels, chews and sports drinks.  Sugar is everywhere, and for those of us following a largely sedentary lifestyle it is easy to eat too much.  In a country where around 2/3 of the population are overweight, sugar is rarely seen in a positive light, but for athletes there are benefits. 

All carbohydrate foods and drinks we consume are converted to sugars in the body.  However, this does not make all carbohydrate-based foods unhealthy. 

Carbohydrates are made up of chains of various sugar molecules.  These chains are broken down in the body to release individual sugars, which can be used as an effective fuel by the muscles and brain.  Sugar is not always nasty, and can be a valuable energy source for optimal human performance.  Different types of individual sugars can be used by the body, and the right balance can be beneficial for providing the best fuel to sustain endurance efforts.  Although it sounds like I am talking up the benefits of sugar, there is a time and a place for different types.  Some athletes may need to tailor their carbohydrate intake around training and competition in light of other nutrition goals, while others with elevated fuel needs and revved up metabolisms may need regular carbohydrate throughout the day.

 

HOW MUCH SUGAR FOR ATHLETES?

If you are an athlete that burns a lot of carbohydrate, then sugar will help to fuel performance.  But just because you train a lot, doesn't mean you necessarily need to carbohydrate load for every training session.  Every athlete has different requirements for carbohydrate and sugars based on a range of factors including gender, body weight, body composition, training program, training phase, health status, altitude and genetics.  Two people doing exactly the same training could in fact have quite different carbohydrate requirements.  An athlete’s daily carbohydrate needs can be estimated based on body weight and current training, and this can be adjusted over time to accommodate other individual factors as just listed.  

For exercise less than one hour duration, carbohydrate fuel requirements may be low, but there is evidence for performance benefits of a small amounts of carbohydrate during exercise due to potential central nervous system effects.  As the duration of exercise increases, so too does the requirement for carbohydrate, with 60-90g/hour recommended for athletes during endurance activity (or even higher for some ultra-endurance athletes working at a high intensity, up toward 110g/hour). 

I recently attended a nutrition for ultra-endurance sports symposium run by Monash University and there seems to be a wide range of carbohydrate intakes during competition and different types of training sessions.  As you may expect, many individuals find it physically difficult to consume 90g/hour during exercise, and may struggle at even half of this (45g/hour).  This is often due to gastrointestinal symptoms, which can be related to individual factors and the type of activity.  It is easier to eat and drink riding a bike at a moderate pace compared to running at elite marathon pace for example.  Some people also may simply use carbohydrate more effectively than others.  For serious athletes, it may be worth seeking a laboratory that can test your individual ability to oxidise carbohydrate and to help you work out the best type and amount of carbohydrate for during exercise. 

 

TYPES OF SUGAR

The recommendation in recent years has been for endurance athletes in events >2 hours duration with high carbohydrate needs (>60g/hour) should consume multiple transportable carbohydrate during exercise in a 2:1 glucose:fructose ratio.  Fructose has a different transport system for absorption from the intestine, so adding some fructose to the glucose consumed allows a greater amount of carbohydrate to be absorbed by the body.   An increasing number of people are being identified as fructose malabsorbers, and trying to increase fructose as a fuel option for exercise may be problematic in terms of gut comfort.  Fructose malabsorption may be exacerbated with exercise due to increased irritation of the gut, even though there may not be any gastrointestinal symptoms day-to-day. So it comes down to looking at maximizing carbohydrate intake within individual tolerance levels and exercise needs.

 

NATURAL SUGARS VS REFINED

Some endurance athletes have taken an interest in ‘natural’ forms of carbohydrate and sugars as an alternative to formulated sports products eg. gels.   This involves preparing home-made snacks rather than relying on commercial sports nutrition products.  As per my recent blog, natural sugars are not always as innocent as they may seem, and are not necessarily healthier than refined sugar.  I am all for reducing intake of processed food and additives across the board, but when it comes to athletic performance we really need to think about the type of individual sugars from a more scientific perspective.  Home-made cookies, balls and cakes are terrific, and there are a range of sweet and savoury options that work well.  The only problem is that many natural sugars are often high in fructose, which can cause major gut issues for long-duration exercise. Natural options are often low glycemic index, which means they may be more slowly digested….great if you are trying to lose weight and need help staying full for longer but not so great if you want food to empty rapidly from the stomach while exercising.  Finding the right balance of carbohydrates takes planning, and also some trial and error.  If you are set on going all natural then go for it, but if your gut is telling you ‘no’ then you may need to mix it up a bit.  Pre- and post-exercise is where unrefined carbohydrates come into their own, but during exercise the focus should be on glucose vs fructose rather than natural vs processed.

 

DO ATHLETES REALLY NEED ALL THAT CARBOHYDRATE?

There is so much discussion about carbohydrate as a fuel, but athletes don’t need to be carbohydrate loading for every session.  There are potential benefits of training with low fuel stores for selected training sessions to encourage physiological adaptations that optimize fuel systems.  In reality, a competitive situation may lead to low carbohydrate stores with limited carbohydrate availability, so an improved ability to rely on fat oxidation for fuelling may be of benefit. Some athletes are following the low carb trends and there is a movement by some ultra-endurance athletes to train their bodies to use predominantly fat as a fuel, replacing gels and bars with tubes of nut butter to fuel exercise.  Fat is a slow-burning fuel, so although this approach may work well for some individuals, to truly maximize endurance performance, sugar throughout will help.  Numerous studies show that faster finish times for endurance athletes correlate with higher carbohydrate intake during an event– if you can use more carbohydrate you can move faster.  However if your exercise is of shorter duration, you won’t need to be so aggressive with carbohydrate intake.  If you are not sure how much carbohydrate you need, speak with an Accredited Sports Dietitian to tailor your intake.   

 

WHAT ABOUT STRENGTH ATHLETES?

Strength athletes may benefit from carbohydrate prior to sessions for improved energy levels, work capacity and muscle mass gains.  So it’s not just all about protein -  carbohydrates and overall kilojoules are just as important.  Strength-based activities don’t use the same volume of carbohydrates as endurance pursuits, therefore carbohydrate needs may be more likely to be met through meals, without the need to consume large amounts during exercise.  However some athletes with very high energy requirements may benefit from taking in kilojoules, including carbohydrates, during strength sessions.

 

WEIGHT LOSS

Athletes trying to lose weight often reduce carbohydrates.  This can be an effective strategy, but it is important to be selective about where in the day carbohydrates are reduced and by how much, with the priority to time carbohydrate for training needs to produce the best training outcomes and adaptations.  There has been recent interest in ‘train-low’ and ‘sleep-low’ concepts of carbohydrate timing, which may improve fuel utilization but may also be appropriate to support body fat goals.

 

TEETH

Dental health is often compromised in athletes.  With reduced saliva production during exercise, coupled with high sugar intake and the acidity of most sports drinks, the teeth of an athlete are constantly at risk.  Dental problems are the result, so it is wise to try to reduce the contact of sugars with your teeth and try to get plenty of water rinses to reduce the risk of tooth damage.

 

SUMMARY

Sure, carbohydrates are beneficial for athletic performance, but this doesn’t mean you have to be on a constant carbohydrate load.  The type, timing and amount will vary according to specific exercise requirements, gastrointestinal tolerance and personal preference.  Choosing natural sugars is not necessarily better for during endurance activity.  Work on finding the right mix for your individual needs. 

Please feel welcome to subscribe to my regular newsletter, you can do so at the bottom of this page, and I am more than happy for you to share this article with others who may be interested in performance nutrition.

Further reading:

Jeukendrup, A (2011) 'Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling' JSpSci 

Stellingwerff, T & Cox, G (2014) 'Systematic review: carbohydrate supplementation on exercise performance or capacity of varying durations' ApplPhysNutrMetab

 

The facts about sugar - are natural sugars better for you than white?

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If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it's that too much sugar is not great for our health.  But are natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup any better for you than everyday white table sugar?  There is plenty of information out there that would convince you to choose a natural sugar source over refined.  But if you look at the less processed options more carefully, it is quite obvious that they may not be quite as sweet for your health and weight as they are for your palate.

NATURAL INSTINCTS

Over the past few weeks I have been fascinated by the plethora of back-to-school lunchbox ideas on Facebook.  Some are just suggestions, others are quick an easy recipes and many are photos of entire lunchboxes.  Of the lunchboxes I saw, many were of the bento box-style variety, packed by families who follow Paleo, low-carb, LCHF*, GAPS*, JERF* or any other popular way of eating that is described by an acronym these days (*see end of the article for definitions).  The common denominator of many of these dietary approaches are that they are as natural and unprocessed as possible and often ban carbohydrate from grains, but not carbohydrates completely.

I love the bento box style lunchbox, and can't wait to get them for my boys, but the thing that interested me most about the lunchboxes I viewed was that although there were no grains included, a quick visual assesment indicated that carbohydrate, as sugar, was well and truly present.  This got me thinking about how going grain-free can subsequently lead to increased sugar intake. 

The small individual compartments of the bento boxes were impressively jam packed with vegetable sticks, cherry tomatoes, chopped fruit, maybe some cheese or yoghurt and some leftover cold meat or chicken (no nuts due to the imporant nut-free school policies).  Terrific and great examples of nutritious foods for a child throughout a school day, or for an adult!  But what also seemed to feature highly in these boxes where substantial quantities of grain-free delights, think seed/fruit slices and balls (every nutrition website seems to have a recipe for a ball of some sort), 'healthy' slices and cookies, even chocolate mousse!  Not just a small serve, but enough to make up a fair portion of the healthy lunchbox.  Many of these 'healthy' type of sweet concoctions use natural sugars to help bind the ingredients together.  Syrup-form is common, but dates are also often used as the main ingredient.  Nothing against dates, they do contain a range of nutrients, but they are also up towards 70% sugar.  Actually most dried fruit has greater than 50% sugar (compared to fresh fruit which is usually <10%, even bananas, with the highest carbohydrate concentration of all the fruits, is around 18%).   So is using dates, or other natural type sugar sources, as the sweet component really any better than using other types of sweetener? 

NUTRITIOUS NATURAL SUGARS?

White sugar, like the type you put in your cup of tea, is often labelled as a toxic poison, while the natural options like honey, agave, coconut sugar, rice syrups and maple syrup are increasingly being added in many homes as staple kitchen cupboard ingredients.   The theory behind the use of these natural sweeteners seems to be that less processing will retain some of the trace vitamins and minerals and may also have a reduced impact on blood sugar levels.......true or false?  Mostly false.  If you are relying on honey or maple syrup for your vitamin and mineral needs then you are in trouble.  Adding any of the less processed sweeteners does not improve the nutrition value of a food either.  The 'trace' amounts of nutrients in these sweeteners are exactly that, trace amounts, so small that they will not contribute significantly to overall nutrient intake.  But they will contribute significantly to overall sugar and kilojoule intake, and perhaps even have implications for dental health.  The chewy, sticky type balls and slices with natural-based sugars and dried fruit that can stick to the teeth for longer are far more likely to contribute to dental issues compared to a piece of wholegrain bread or small serve of rice.

ARE ALL SUGARS THE SAME?

Can we throw all sweeteners into the one basket as 'just sugar and kilojoules'?  Not quite, but just about. 

HONEY has always been a standout in the sweetener stakes, with research in humans showing potential health benefits with regard to anti-inflammatory and anti-biotic effects (note - it won't cure cancer).  The only thing is, most of the studies on honey involve consumption of a lot of honey, 3-5tbsp per day.  That is up towards 100g of honey per day, which is 20 teaspoons or over one third of a cup - a lot of honey.  Many of the health claims related to honey require further research to support them, and to determine a useful dose.  In terms of the type of sugar in honey, it contains glucose and fructose in a 1:1 ratio, same as table sugar.  So depending on your overall nutrition requirements, the potential benefits of honey may be outweighed by the additional sugar and kilojoule effects. 

AGAVE, agave nectar, or agave syrup is heavily promoted as a natural and low GI sweetener, but they forget to tell you that the reason it has a low GI is because this syrup is loaded with fructose, potentially around 85% fructose.  Great, it's low GI, but overloading on fructose is probably not a great health choice.  Yes, many fruits contain fructose, but in very, very low concentrations compared to a sugar syrup like agave, and fruit is tied up in a pretty little package with lots of fibre, water and nutrients. A lot of the agave available for sale is highly processed too, not as natural as it may claim.

MAPLE SYRUP is the best thing ever on pancakes (in my opinion!), nothing else tastes quite like it.  But amongst all that deliciousness is lots of sugar, most of the sugar in maple syrup is sucrose.  Sucrose is table sugar, maple syrup is over 2/3 table sugar, with some water and trace vitamins and minerals.

BROWN RICE SYRUP, or rice malt syrup, sounds so healthy.  The word 'brown' is quite deceiving, most 'brown' or wholegrain foods are low GI.  Brown rice syrup is the complete opposite, being high GI and bad news for blood glucose levels.

COCONUT SUGAR must be good for you, because coconut products are meant to treat everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease, right??  Coconut sugar is 70-80% sucrose, basically just table sugar.  It may have a slightly lower GI, but who cares, it's predominantly table sugar with a not-worth-mentioning tinge of nutrients.

There are plenty of other natural sweeteners out there, these are just some of the popular ones often used as a healthier substitute to sugar.  Unfortunately there is not a lot of good news if you are trying to improve your nutrition by using white sugar alternatives.

ENJOY SWEETENED FOODS

Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against a little bit of sugar on a regular basis.  I love the idea of making sweet snack options healthier (I made some cookies with oats, cranberries, brown sugar, honey, butter, eggs, a little bit of flour and some mini-choc chips on the weekend, but I don't make them every week).  But don't be fooled into thinking that by using a 'natural' sugar it is necessarily better for you, in terms of health or energy levels.  Using regular white or brown sugar, in small amounts as part of nutritious foods is absolutely fine!  

If you are an athlete or someone who trains a lot, then your choice of carbohydrates may need a bit of planning and the type and timing of sugars can be critical to performance.  But if you know me, you will know my thoughts on jelly lollies at half time....just because you are running around for an hour or two doesn't mean you need stacks of processed sugar products.  One of my upcoming posts will address the more specific needs of active people when it comes to carbohydrates and sugars.

CHOOSE SWEETENERS WISELY

Choose your sweetener based on the taste and texture, not on health.  Get nutrients from vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, nuts/seeds, dairy or alternatives and wholegrains (wheat-free if required), and enjoy sweet foods as part of eating beautiful, delicious food, being mindful with regard to your individual overall health.

Diet definitions: 

JERF = Just Eat Real Food                                                                                                    GAPS = Gut And Psychology Syndrome                                                                              LCHF = Low Carb High Fat

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Low-fat does not always mean high-sugar, but do we need low-fat anyway?

When we see 'low-fat' plastered over a food label, we often automatically assume that the fat has been replaced with sugar, salt, additives or something else that is worse for us than the actual fat that has been removed.  As a result, many people avoid low-fat products, but if you take a closer look you will find that not all foods with fat taken out have nasties added back in (although many do).  Some low-fat products are in fact higher in nutrients and lower in kilojoules than their full-fat relatives, but you need to read the labels carefully.  More importantly, do we even need to choose low-fat anyway or just stick to the full-fat versions?  I am asked this question all the time, and the answer is far from clear cut, so I thought I would write about it and try to clarify the best options for different individuals and circumstances . 

'Low-fat' can be a very deceiving label on a food.  Some foods are labelled low-fat when they are naturally low in fat to start with, so the food has not been altered in any way from it's natural state (eg. rice-based crackers).  Some foods can have the fat reduced, but nothing else is added to replace it (eg lean meats from which the fat has been trimmed).  Other foods named low-fat or "xx% fat free' have had fat removed, or are formulated to have a lower fat content, but to make the food palatable have a myriad of sugars added.  Sugar can be can be disguised within an ingredients list within a range of forms such as glucose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, fruit concentrate, brown rice syrup, honey, honey powder (!), maltodextrin, invert sugar, maltose, malt syrup and agave (which for some reason is often promoted as a healthy sweetener but is still high in sugar and super-high in fructose, reducing the glycemic index but big deal, it's still sugar).  Additives are also often plentiful in processed foods to maintain texture and shelf life.  An example of the types of foods that may be low in fat but higher in sugar and other additives include processed sweet and dry biscuits, fruit/muesli bars, breakfast cereals, flavoured milks and smoothies, sauces and dressings, ice-cream and flavoured yoghurts. 

Speaking of yoghurt, the dairy cabinet is one area of the supermarket that can be overwhelming when it comes to choice, and yoghurt is probably the main culprit when it comes to reducing fat content but adding sugar.  I don't read labels in the yoghurt aisle. I just try to keep it simple and stick to natural or Greek varieties, and most of the time avoid fruit flavoured yoghurts.  Whether sweetened with sugar or artificial sweetener (I am a little unsure to be honest which one is least preferable),  there is usually minimal fruit content and most of them don't even taste like real yoghurt.  Add your own fruit/nuts/seeds at home.

The next dairy option to consider is milk.  LOW-FAT MILK IS NOT HIGHER IN SUGAR THAN FULL-CREAM!  Back to my fridge for some nutrition comparisons, per 100ml:

                                       Full-cream milk                Reduced fat milk

Energy                          64 calories                       46 calories   

Protein                          3.4g                                  3.5g

Fat                                 3.4g                                  1.4g

Saturated fat                 2.3g                                  0.9g

Carbohydrate                4.8g                                  4.9g

Sugars                            4.8g                                  4.9g

Sodium                           44mg                                44mg

Calcium                          128mg                               132mg

Similarly with yoghurt, low-fat natural or Greek varieties DO NOT have more sugar than full fat. 

Milk and natural yoghurts do not contain extra sugar when the fat is removed, but do we really need to choose the low-fat versions anyway?  I am asked almost daily whether low-fat or full-fat milk is better and my answer always varies depending on who I am talking to.  I have both reduced fat (not skim) and full cream milk in my fridge. I give my two young growing boys full-cream milk.  You can offer low-fat milk once little ones reach 2 years of age, but my boys are bundles of energy and the additional calories are useful for them.  We also have low-fat milk, mostly for my husband who is a large consumer of milk as part of milkshakes and protein drinks.  The benefit of low-fat is the reduction in calorie intake with larger volumes.  Myself I vary it, going for full cream milk usually, but sometimes low-fat if I seem to be having a bigger dairy day.  My preferred dairy option is yoghurt, and again, sometimes I choose full-fat, but probably more often low-fat as I eat a fair bit of it.   So it comes down to the amount of dairy food you eat, as to whether or not you need low-fat dairy options, with consideration also of health and body composition goals.  Many people are concerned about saturated fat intake with regard to specific medical conditions and this is also an area for discussion based on individual circumstances.  A great article for an update on the debate over saturated vs. unsaturated fats from Harvard School of Public Health, 'Is butter really back?'.  It is long, but well worth a read http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine-features/is-butter-really-back/ and outlines the positive aspects of unsaturated fats for good health rather than trying to solely reduce total or saturated fat.

It is interesting to also compare the carbohydrate and sugar contents of non-dairy milk options also.  Looking at the full fat varieties, soy milk generally has a slightly higher carbohydrate content than dairy milk (5-6g/100ml vs. 4.8g/100ml). Oat milk (>8g/100ml) and almond milk (4.8-9g/100ml) are generally higher in carbohydrate than dairy milk, and rice milk usually twice as high (10-13+g/100ml), depending on the brand....rice milk is a terrific base for protein powders for athletes!  Regular coconut milk is not that much lower in carbohydrate (4g/100ml) than dairy milk but significantly higher in fat (the brand I looked at was ~24% fat, so 6x the fat of regular milk) and almost 4x as many calories. *Note, these values were taken from a range of supermarket products, some milk varieties may be higher, or lower in carbohydrate (particularly unsweetened varieties).

Above all, it is important to remember that most foods with a low-fat claim are highly processed.  If you are eating mostly fresh foods in as close to their natural state as possible then you don't have to worry too much about labelling, or ingredients, or the numbers in the nutrition information panel.  By eating less-processed and including fresh vegetables, lean proteins, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, fruits and wholegrains you are likely to automatically reduce your intake of fat and sugar.  Fat is not the bad guy.  Healthy fats are good for you and should be eaten daily.  Whether you choose low-fat varieties of foods may relate more to your overall energy and calorie needs than anything.  But the other thing to remember is that even though reducing fat intake may reduce calories, you may end up hungry and disappointed.  The full-fat alternative may leave you feeling fuller so you may in fact eat less overall, and feel more satisfied if you prefer the taste.  Also remember that full-fat yoghurt is still only ~4% fat, or 96% fat-free, it's not like you are eating half a cheesecake for breakfast! 

If you are an athlete you may not want to reduce your calories necessarily, but instead focus on optimal carbohydrate and protein intakes for training and performance, so low-fat varieties of certain products may be useful to manipulate macronutrient intake for fuelling, recovery or body composition goals. 

I feel like I am making things more complicated than they really are, but the best choices in nutrition are very individual based on a range of personal factors - lucky there are so many options out there to choose from, the challenge is choosing from these the best one for you.