Friday, August 1, 2008

Addicted to sweets

It seems the whole country is addicted to sweet. Anything and everything contains sugar or an equivalent amount of sweetener. From toothpaste to bread, mouthwash to electrolyte tablets, health drinks, chewing gum, and even supplements and vitamins, sweet is a ubiquitous presence. Many drinks that would be better plain such as ice-tea or ready-made coffee are nowhere to be found without the presence of plenty of sweetening.

America's addiction to sweets is as bad as its addiction to oil. Both are far more costly in terms of health and lives lost than the addictions the DEA is so obsessed with. Both are real addictions in need of serious attention.

Sugars (or carbohydrates) are an important energy source for athlete. That is because many activities demand high and immediate energy delivery. Virtually any athletic endeavor, except perhaps true endurance racing, requires a fair amount of anaerobic power. Anaerobic power is within the purview of sugar. Only sugars can provide a quick burst of energy.

Even though sugar storage is quite limited, uptake is very fast. Sugars are easy to digest and any sugar intake results in a quick change in blood sugar levels. Sugar intake is also virtually unlimited and sugars do not provoke a feeling of satiety. Furthermore, because digestion is so easy, stomach emptying is fast, thereby removing another natural halting mechanism.

Pure sugars are not that easy to find in nature and the energy required for foraging plus the other materials one needs to ingest to get to natural sugar may limit consumption in "the wild." However, humans have long since found a way to circumvent these obstacles. Human societies spend a lot of time producing or refining pure sugars. Nearly all human civilizations have stores of pure sugar available. These are often used as rewards or "candy," indicating a special role for such precious cargo.

Most societies have instituted rules to limit utilization. Kids are taught that eating too much candy will make them sick. It is doubtful that they would get sick (other than very obese) so the rule is meant to prevent over-consumption. Adults have similar rules and there is little doubt that the sugar-high and the sugar-jitters find their origins here. There are many tales cautioning people against eating too much sugar. 

Unfortunately, in our consumer society marketing groups quickly discovered that making things sweet sells more stuff more quickly and easily. These marketing groups wage a constant battle against common sense and societal prescriptions. They tout overindulgence and gorging. They make it look glamorous and hail it as a sign of success. No wonder then that more than half the country is overweight or obese.

Endurance athletes should be very careful with sugar intake. A diet high in carbohydrates is often recommended by coaches, consultants, magazines, and books. Although these experts will often propose complex carbohydrates and caution against simple sugars, there is little evidence that complex carbs are any better (or worse) than those "simple" sugars. All carbohydrate processing is very fast and any "long term" sustenance due to uptake or processing is probably a figment of people's imagination.

One should be especially weary of so-called carbo-loading meals. Almost all events have added carbo-loading meals the night before the race. Participants have come to expect such dinners and are often shocked when none is planned. Unfortunately, these carbo-loading dinners are anything but. First off, it is not possible to carbo-load in this manner, and carbo-loading the night before a race is out of the question. Second, the meals offered are rarely any different in composition from normal meals one can find in restaurants. They are not suitable for carbo-loading.

As Olympian Jeff Galloway pointed out, so-called carbo-loading dinners are often an excuse to eat too much. Eating too much has a negative effect on performance, and more so if it is done the night before. Many people no doubt feel they can afford to eat a bit extra, but it is the wrong thing to do. If anything, one should eat less before a race. Endurance events rely on stored fats and all of us (including those very skinny individuals) have enough fats to complete several races many times over. There is little need to add extra fat the night before.

Athletes should also be careful with carbs after training or racing. We are often told to replenish our glycogen stores quickly. We are told there is a time after exercise when muscle is especially likely to take up carbs. While that is true, there is little need to rush or to eat extra carbs right after the race. Even though muscle is more sensitive to glucose in the first 40 minutes after exercise, replenishment will still be adequate if no sugar is consumed within that time-frame. Within a day or two, there will be no difference between a person who ate carbs right away and someone who didn't.

There is a real danger however, of eating too much. Especially when the athlete reloads with carbohydrates only. One can consume a 1,000 calories of sugar faster than one realizes. And still feel hungry afterwards too.

The take-home is simple: be careful with carbs. Watch what you eat.

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