Sugary foods might taste delicious and hit the spot when you’re craving something indulgent and sweet, but that batch of chocolate chip cookies isn’t doing your body or your health any favors, especially when you’re training for a race. In order to improve your performance and grow stronger, your body needs a rich supply of essential nutrients like protein, fiber, good fats, and several vitamins and minerals.
But beyond just monitoring your intake to guarantee you’re meeting those macro- and micro-nutrient quotas, you also need to reduce your sugar intake (added sugars, in particular), since sugar will negatively impact your training, appetite regulation, and energy levels.
Sure, cravings will pop up, and it’s okay to give in to the urge on occasion. But for the most part, your best bet is to avoid processed or added sugar and to enjoy natural sources of sugar in moderation. Consider this approach: While training, you’d fill your plate with lean proteins, heart-healthy fats, antioxidant-dense fruits and vegetables, and whole grains about 95% of the time, while keeping that 5% free for your favorite sweet treats.
“As with many things, the dose makes the poison, and sugar itself is not ‘toxic’ or harmful, as our cells all use glucose as fuel," Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook. "However, in our modern American diet, added sugars from highly-processed foods in excessive portions is harmful to our overall health."
What Makes Sugar So Unhealthy?
About 85–90% of your daily calories need to be from nutrient-dense foods. That leaves 10–15% for "discretionary" calories, which are often added sugars and solid fats that — unfortunately — lack nutritional value.
“When we exceed that, we are either likely gaining weight from excess caloric consumption or missing out on key nutrients because we are crowding out healthy food with sugary processed foods,” Harris-Pincus explains.
When you're training for a race, you want to stay properly fueled so that the energy that’s available for the muscles to use is of rich, nutrient-dense sources and is accessible whenever they need it. The muscles also need to replenish lost nutrients post workout, which will come from whole foods rather than sugars. If you're consuming sugar for more than about 5% of your daily calories, you’re not only spiking your blood sugar and promoting fat storage, but also you’re eliminating room for the intake of more nutritional foods, which your muscles truly do need pre- and post-workout to train, strengthen, and recover.
“The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams for men, which is about 5% of an average calorie intake," she says. "But that can add up really fast if you are not paying attention.
"Meal planning, checking labels, and planning when to have those sweet indulgences can help you stay on track with a healthy diet and lifestyle."
Enjoy Natural Sugars Over Added or Processed Sugars
Naturally-occurring sugar is found in fruits, veggies, and plain, unsweetened dairy products such as milk or plain, unsweetened Greek yogurt.
“This type of sugar is not generally a concern because it is part of otherwise nutrient-dense foods, which are filled with important vitamins, minerals, and — in the case of fruits and veggies — fiber,” she says.
Added sugars come into play during processing, where manufacturers add sugar to processed foods and baked goods. They aren’t just in pastries and desserts though: Added sugars are sneakily present in dressings, marinades, pasta sauce, plant-based or flavored yogurts, and crackers and bread (even hearty varieties, which can be pretty misleading to the average customer). Check labels for added sugars, where it’ll provide a gram amount as well as the total.
You’ll find added sugar count on the labels of fruity Greek yogurt, dried fruit, chocolate milk, pasta sauce (there’s natural sugar in tomatoes, but generally also added sugar to boost sweetness), and several processed foods and canned goods containing fruit, veggies, and dairy products.
As for natural sugars (such as those found in fruit), it’s important to keep those in your diet, since they do have antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins to better your heart health. Meal planning according to time here is key. This will help you utilize sugar properly and avoid both fat storage and a blood sugar spike, which is often followed by a crash shortly after.
When choosing to eat natural sugars, integrate them into snacks that are situated around your training schedule and workouts. This way you’re using them as the body’s main source of fuel and energy to help you perform at your best (plus you’re more likely to burn it off).
And as far as fruits go, choose a variety containing skin. The skin on fruit holds pectin, a fiber that will improve satiety, regulate the gut, and keep blood sugar stable. So, you may eat a banana pre-workout or apple slices with a little bit of peanut butter, for example.
But Don't Forget the 5%
Eliminating dessert completely can backfire, as feelings of deprivation may cause you to quit your healthy diet and training regimen all together, causing you to feel compelled to eat all of the sweet treats at once.
This isn’t a healthy approach to nutrition, especially when you’re gearing up for a race. If you deprive yourself too often, then that one serving of a chocolate chip cookie you told yourself you could have may turn into an entire bag being polished off in minutes.
That 5% will keep you satisfied, but use it wisely. Make sure that the bulk of it consists of natural sugars found in fruit, as well as indulgent desserts when the occasion strikes (perhaps a slice of birthday cake or a cupcake from your favorite bakery on a day when you’re walking by).
The takeaway? Make most of your meal plan count with properly-portioned servings of fruit, lots of green veggies, nuts, beans and legumes, seeds, whole grains, healthy fats and fatty fish, and lean proteins such as lean beef, turkey, and chicken breast.
That way, when you want something sweet, it’ll fit better into your overall plan.
"We deserve to enjoy what we love, while still being kind to our bodies and making the majority of foods beneficial — versus detrimental — to our health,” Harris-Pincus says.