Sugar gets a lot of bad press. However, as with most things in nutrition, the story is more complicated than what we’re led to believe. Far from being the bad guy, sugar in certain forms is important to our health and exercise performance.
When we talk about ‘sugars’ what we tend to really mean are a type of ‘carbohydrates’. Carbohydrates are long chains of sugar units found in a variety of foods; everything from carrots to chocolate contains carbohydrates. These get digested by a series of bodily enzymes into their constituent smaller sugar units to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Carbohydrates come in different forms but all serve the same purpose; they are our body’s preferred source of energy.
Therefore, to function at our best, we need to consume carbohydrates to fuel our busy days and exercise regimes. Current government guidelines recommend 50-55% of our total energy should come from carbohydrates. When we don’t consume enough, we become lethargic and experience ‘brain fog’. Moreover, our personal bests in the gym become harder to obtain, especially if we’re undertaking high intensity exercise.
It’s only natural
That’s not to say there are some forms of carbohydrates which we should consume in moderation; for example, those found in foods such as cakes, cookies and biscuits as well as sweets and chocolate. Some of the carbohydrates in these foods are rapidly digested, and consequently cause a rapid spike in our blood sugar levels. This can lead to cravings in the short term and put us at potential risk of developing type 2 diabetes if consumed regularly and in high amounts in the long term.
In contrast, starchy carbohydrates found in wholemeal bread, pasta and rice as well as potatoes, cause a more gradual rise in blood sugar when they are digested. These slow-release carbohydrates provide more sustained energy throughout the day. Fruits and vegetables are another food group that are a source of carbohydrates and natural sugars, which our bodies need to function.
Some foods contain smaller chains of carbohydrates, or sugars, which our bodies don’t need to break down to absorb. These can be present in two main forms: as intrinsic or extrinsic sugars. Intrinsic sugar is the stuff found in fruits and vegetables, for example; it’s locked up within the cells and therefore doesn’t get absorbed and released into our bloodstream quickly when we eat these foods. This type of sugar isn’t something we have to worry about (unless of course we're eating whole orchards of fruit or turning them into juices; a process which releases sugar from the cells).
Extrinsic sugar is not bound up in cells (hence it is also referred to as ‘free sugar’) and is the sugar that medical professional refer to when they talk about risk factors involved in the development of metabolic disease and tooth decay, for example. Extrinsic sugars include not only table sugar, but also ‘trendy’ maple syrup, honey and agave, and are also contained in fruit juices and purees. We should all try to limit our intake of this type of sugar to 5-10% of our total energy per day.
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient that should make up half of our daily energy intake to fuel our body’s core functions and to boost our workouts. However, the type of carbohydrates we chose is important so select slow-release carbohydrates in starchy foods or sources of natural, intrinsic sugars such as whole fruits and vegetables as opposed to processed extrinsic sugars. Our favourites are…