What's better for us: real cane sugar with empty calories or calorie-free artificial sweeteners? Is there a benefit to choosing one over the other? How do we define what's real sugar and what's fake? And how should those who lead an active lifestyle weigh the pros and cons? Let's take a closer look so you can decide whether you should opt for real or fake sugar.
Carbohydrates for Athletes
All foods that contain sugar, starch, or fiber are part of the carbohydrate food group. Examples include fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, legumes, and beans. These foods are vital to our health, as they provide much of the energy, vitamins, and minerals we need to stay healthy.
Cane sugar, syrups, white bread, candy, soda, and any foods sweetened with processed, added sugars also contain carbs. These choices, however, provide us with minimal nutrition. They're often thought of as empty calories because they provide a lot of energy without a lot of nutrients, and regularly consuming these foods can contribute to weight gain and chronic illness.
Carbohydrates are a top-priority macronutrient for athletic performance. The body pulls from both carbohydrate and fat stores during physical activity. Carbohydrates, however, are the preferred fuel source, as it provides more energy per unit and at a quicker rate than fat. With this in mind, athletes should choose their carbs wisely -- this category includes some of the healthiest and the unhealthiest foods out there.
Real vs. Fake
We all love sweets, but since they're full of added sugars, should we go for sugar-free alternatives? Fake sugar in the form of artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners provides little to no calories, and it can be made from natural or artificial sources. These sweeteners have increased in popularity since the discovery of the health problems associated with excessive consumption of added sugars. This was the food industry's way of keeping up sales of sweet treats as people became more health-conscious. But are the promises of artificial sweeteners too good to be true?
Non-nutritive sweeteners generally contain many added chemicals, and while preliminary research suggests that they're safe for consumption, we need more data to evaluate the safety of using these products long-term. Also, relying on artificial sweeteners tends to decrease a person's sensitivity to the taste of sugar and increase their cravings for sweet foods.
Adding a little natural sugar or honey to sweeten certain foods or enjoying a reasonably sized portion of a sweet treat is a better route than regularly consuming highly processed products containing artificial sweeteners. And if you're an active individual, your body needs carbohydrates to fuel your workouts, so artificial sweeteners are unnecessary, and small amounts of real sugar shouldn't be a problem. The most important thing is to choose the right carbohydrates to fuel your level and type of activity.
Natural vs. Processed
So is it best to choose carbohydrates that contain natural sugars -- whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy -- or more processed options such as sports drinks, gels, gummies, and energy bars? It depends on whether you're fueling before, during, or after a workout.
Before or after a workout, choose natural, nutritious carbohydrates: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, beans, and legumes. These foods will provide your body with slow-digesting carbs to help replenish your glycogen stores. Enjoying these carbs as part of a well-rounded, balanced meal will ensure that you get the other nutrients you need for overall health.
If you're engaging in high-intensity endurance exercise that requires refueling mid-workout, processed carbohydrate choices are actually ideal. Sports drinks, gels, and gummies that are designed specifically to be consumed while exercising contain simple carbs that your body can metabolize quickly, giving you the rapid energy you need during the race. Sports nutrition products require much less digestion than complex carbs and provide more energy in a smaller package, reducing the risk of an upset stomach while you're training.
The key takeaways? If you're an active individual, avoid fake sugar and artificial sweeteners, as carbohydrates will fuel your best workouts. When you're not training hard, choose nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains over the empty-calorie carb choices (candy, soda, and baked goods). During high-intensity endurance exercise lasting more than two hours, go for quick-digesting carbs in the form of sports nutrition products.
If you know what types of carbs to choose and when, choosing between real and fake sugar becomes simple, and you can fuel your workouts properly.