In this article two-time Olympian and Professor of Sports Science Greg Whyte explains why we should avoid excessive consumption of simple sugars, adapt a periodisation approach to our nutrition and focus on complex carbohydrates for improved performance and long term health benefits.
Sugar has recently become Public Enemy No.1. Whilst this could be seen as a media obsession to pin falling public health on a single source, there is some truth in the potentially harmful effects of excessive sugar consumption.
The deleterious effects of excessive sugar consumption impact on both health, including links to obesity and metabolic syndrome (increasing the risk of Type 2 diabetes & heart disease), and performance. In particular, excessive consumption of sugar (particularly simple sugars) can have a profoundly negative impact on health and performance as athletes age.
Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Combining these simple sugars results in disaccharides (2 simple sugars i.e. sucrose which is granulated sugar; maltose from malted grain; and lactose from milk). Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides or polysaccharides (also known as ‘Complex Carbohydrates’).
The longer the chain of simple sugars the longer they take to break down. Of note, sugars provide no nutrition with the exception of energy (why they are often called ‘empty calories’).
Whilst there is a growing trend for ‘Fat Adaptation’ in endurance and ultra-endurance sport care is warranted in adopting a low/no carbohydrate diet during heavy, intensive training and competition. Sugars are not essential in our diet however, high intensity exercise (above the anaerobic threshold) relies heavily on carbohydrates for energy production.
Accordingly, an athletes diet should reflect the demands of the upcoming training session/event to ensure optimal performance. Periodising your diet, in a similar fashion to periodised training, will provide the appropriate fuel for the task at hand. This approach is even more important for the older athlete, particularly in terms of sugar.
Biological and physiological changes as we age can lead to glucose intolerance; and insulin insensitivity. Furthermore, Type 2 diabetes is common in later life. Accordingly, the type, timing and volume of carbohydrate ingestion is important for the older athlete to avoid a range of common problems with excessive simple sugar consumption including: gastro-intestinal discomfort (i.e. bloating, nausea, diarrhea); poorly regulated blood glucose levels; and weight gain. Importantly, excessive simple sugar consumption can be deleterious to health as well as performance.
Ensuring optimal energy availability is crucial for the older athlete however; the focus should be on complex (slower release) carbohydrates rather than simple (rapid release) sugars.
Periodising nutrition to ensure adequate complex carbohydrate ingestion at meal times combined with targeted sports nutrition providing high quantities of complex carbohydrates, will help optimize training and competition performance whilst better protecting health.
Take Home Messages:
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Professor Greg Whyte OBE PhD DSc FBASES FACSM
Prof Greg Whyte is a two-time Olympian, Professor of Sport Science, Liverpool John Moores University and has published over 200 peer reviewed papers and 8 books in the area of sport, exercise science and medicine . He is Performance Director, Centre for Health and Human Performance, Chair of UK Active Research Institute Scientific Advisory Board and Principal investigator for WADA. He has helped to raise over £35 million for Comic Relief and Sport Relief and is the best selling author of Achieve the Impossible.
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