Most high-performing athletes closely monitor their sugar intake — if they even consume much sugar at all — while most regular Americans consume triple the maximum recommended amount per day. According to the USDA, that's about 94 grams daily, versus the 35 grams for men and 25 grams for women that the American Heart Association advises should be the limit. (For reference, a teaspoon of sugar contains about 4 grams.)
Although you should generally keep total sugar low (especially if you're training for a race), not all sugar is created equal.
“Naturally-occurring sugars, like glucose, fuel our bodies," Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD, says. "Natural foods that contain sugar, like fruit, are packed with beneficial fiber and phytonutrients."
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That’s incredibly important as an athlete, because you need glucose for fuel pre- and post-workout. Added sugars, however, are snuck into packaged foods, many of which don’t even taste sweet.
“These are often filled with empty calories that leave us unsatisfied and craving more sugar,” Michalczyk says.
If you care about your mental clarity and physical performance, eliminate these sugar-filled foods from your meal plan entirely.
Sugar-Filled Foods for Athletes to Avoid
What’s a burger or ribs without BBQ sauce, right? Well, many store-brand bottles of ketchup and sauces can have more than 9 grams of sugar per 1 tablespoon serving. Not only is that a lot, but most people — especially hungry endurance athletes refueling after a tough workout — don't even stick to one serving.
Read labels to identify brands that are low in sugar and to stick to two servings, max.
“Look for bottles that say ‘no sugar added’ on the label,” Michalczyk says.
Most mainstream brands are making a lower-sugar version, or you can simply whip up your own healthy condiment.
2. Whole Wheat Bread
While it’s got a reputation for being healthy, even fiber-packed whole wheat bread can have sugar. In fact, some brands contain more than 4 grams per slice, meaning your sandwich clocks in at 8 grams of sugar or more — not counting the condiments.
Look for low-sugar brands that have fewer than 3 grams per slice, and definitely don’t opt for those that list sugar as the first ingredient. And if you're looking to cut calories, eat an open-faced sandwich, so you can halve your intake and still get in the whole wheat benefits.
3. Pre-Packaged Smoothies
These smoothies can pack more than 34 grams per 8-ounce serving, according to Michalcyzk. If you’re buying bottled, read the label. You want 100% fruit juice and no artificial sweeteners.
You'll be way better off blending your own smoothie at home. Pick one or two fruits and then load it up with protein and veggies. If you’re using protein powder, make it one that’s low in sugar, and only add yogurt if it's plain and unsweetened, Greek-style.
4. Pasta Sauce
Look for “low sugar” on the label before you carb load with these secret sugar bombs. Marinara sauce can clock in at more than 10 grams per ½-cup serving.
“Some sauces have one gram, which is what I look for,” Michalcyzk says.
You can also make your own, or just use olive oil and fresh herbs with protein — like chicken or salmon — to keep it simple and sugar-free.
5. Flavored Yogurt
Though yogurt is touted as a healthy protein powerhouse, the distinction can be dubious depending on the type of yogurt you're reaching for. Some brands contain more than 19 grams of sugar per single-serving cup — a lot of sugar for a snack. (And if you're eating it as a meal, you’re likely adding other items, introducing even more sugar.)
Follow Michalcyzk’s advice: Go for plain Greek yogurt for probiotic benefits and protein, and add your own serving of fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, and other toppings that provide good fats and protein, not more processed sugar.