One of the most talked about topics in the health and nutrition world, sugar has been associated with many diseases and is blamed for the obesity epidemic. I used to be on that train, but I don’t ride it anymore. As I delve further into the sports and athletic performance side of nutrition, I’m beginning to realize that sugar is really just a scapegoat.

I do believe as a nation we eat way too much sugar. It shouldn’t be put into bread or sauces. We shouldn’t be eating this many cookies, crackers, or candy with such a high concentration of refined sugar. Nor should we be adding it to our coffee and drinking sodas and drinks with all this added sugar. But this is a quantity issue, not a product issue.

Sugar is not sugar – meaning not all sugar is equal. Sugar from fruit, honey, agave, refined table sugar, cane sugar, and syrups all get digested and absorbed differently. So we can’t just look at a nutrition label or profile and say, “No I can’t have this, it has too many grams of sugar.”

Sugar is a FAST fuel – it works quickly. This is really important for the athlete to know and understand for pre-race, mid-race, and post-race. How you fuel will depend on the distance you’re going, but if you need energy two minutes ago, sugar will be your best bet. When trying to make a quick recovery, combining sugar with protein gets that protein to your muscles faster. This is why a lot of protein bars have “a ton” of sugar in them – it’s not just to mask the awful taste. Though I would still caution one to look at how many grams of sugar are in your bar compared to protein grams. Some of the bars out there go overboard.

The timing of when we eat sugary foods matter. It determines what exactly your body is going to do with it. That being said, your current fitness level and metabolism play into this as well. The human body is not a machine – it’s better. We adapt! Old news maybe, but think about what that means. How incredibly awesome is that?! If you eat a cookie as a conditioned athlete your body handles it completely different than when you lived a sedentary lifestyle.

Sugar does not cause cancer. It fuels cancer. Cancer cells are very demanding and sugar is a speedy fuel, remember? Eating junk food like candy and packaged cookies that have a lot of sugar also have a lot of other preservatives and chemicals that when habitually eaten, are likely to cause cancer.

I don’t think it’s wise to cut sugar completely out of your diet, especially when you cut out foods like fruits and honey that have many other benefits. Sugar is not the devil – it’s about quantity and timing, and knowing how to fuel your body to perform as an athlete. You need to assess if you want your athleticism to be solely for health and longevity, if you want to be a recreational athlete, or if you want to compete at a higher level. After you do that, you can start to figure out how sugar works in your diet.

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