A difficulty controlling sugar cravings is a common concern among athletes, especially in endurance sports. We’ve all been told that too much sugar is bad for us, so why do our bodies demand it so much?
Some of this is human behaviour – tell someone they can’t have something and it starts a ‘deprivation mentality’, so they instantly want it! But the ‘need’ for sugar is actually somewhat physiological too. Don’t forget if you’re training hard, with a percentage of your training at high intensity, then the body is going to need a readily available source of energy to fuel this work, and glucose is the preferred source.
Additionally, many of us don’t realise that the brain requires 120g of glucose a day in order to control all the vital processes within the body. If this isn’t available, (e.g. during starvation) then the body can use ketones. More research is still needed to see if this is as efficient as glucose.
Before you take this information as the perfect excuse to go and eat cake, remember that we already have glycogen and adipose stores in our bodies that generate glucose for us. Earlier this year, the SACN (Science Advisory Committee on Nutrition) said that ‘added’ sugar shouldn’t make up more than 5% of your total energy intake, or a maximum of 30g a day. This includes white table sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, coconut sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
So if you’re consuming 3,000kcals a day, then your total amount of extrinsic sugar should be no more than 150kcals, or seven teaspoons. This excludes sugar naturally found in fruit or milk (lactose), known as intrinsic sugar.
My general advice to athletes is to use this as a guideline, aiming for a balance over the course of 7-10 days: e.g. if intake is 10-15% on some days then have others where it’s lowered to 5%. That said there are still some good nutritional strategies you can employ to reduce sugar cravings:
In periods when your training volume is high, ensure you base your meals and snacks on nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as whole grains (bread, pasta, rice, quinoa), beans/pulses, potatoes, oats, dairy, fruit and vegetables. I usually recommend fist-size portions at meals and halve this size for snacks – this prevents blood sugar fluctuations, which can lead to sugar cravings.
Aim to combine food groups, e.g. a banana with nut butter, chicken and avocado with a wholegrain bagel, sweet potato and feta cheese, or Greek yoghurt and fruit. This also helps to control blood sugars, and prevent that mid-afternoon biscuit tin raid!
Ensure you’re meeting your nutritional requirements by tailoring your intake to your training and recovery. Sugar cravings often occur when individuals don’t recover properly after a high-intensity session. Aim for a mix of carbs and protein such as fruit, yoghurt and milk smoothie or scrambled eggs with wholegrain toast.
When nothing but sugar will do, here are some simple tips that may prove to valuable:
Try freezing fruit – eaten straight from the freezer, frozen dates taste like toffees, usually two are enough to beat a sugar craving. Similarly, frozen grapes are a bit like boiled sweets, and frozen bananas taste similar to ice cream!
Some fruits like berries have a lower sugar load, making frozen berries a great addition to smoothies.
Try melting two pieces of good quality chocolate into a mug of hot milk to make a luxurious hot chocolate with added nutritional benefits.
Trying to find alternatives to energy gels and drinks for training is trickier – many ‘natural’ alternatives still use honey, agave, rice or date syrup. Regardless of what you’ve heard, these are all still sugars and should be limited in the same way as sucrose or table sugar. Some of my strategies include:
Baked/mashed sweet potato with added salt – this is easily digestible and provides sustained energy.
Banana nut sandwich – a banana cut in half and spread with nut butter. This can be tricky to transport but is a great option for refuelling.
While there’s no such thing as ‘free sugar’, you can make your own tea loaf or cake using vegetables – some ideas include carrot and ginger cake, courgette tea loaf or sweet potato brownies.
For some, dried fruit such as mango, cherries, raisins or dates may work well, but remember that the high sugar and fibre content may lead to GI problems.