Expert opinion: Dr Claire Marriott, senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, researches how the body regulates glucose

Sugar has been increasingly demonised in recent years, culminating in the recently announced ‘sugar tax’. But for cyclists and active people, are these short-chain carbohydrates really the enemy? If not, is it fair to make us pay an additional, punitive tax?

Let’s look at the facts. The proposed tax relates to high-sugar fizzy drinks containing more than 5g sugar per 100ml. But these make up only a small proportion of our overall sugar intake. Some health campaigners are calling to extend the tax to include other high-sugar products. As cyclists, we need sugary food and drinks for energy. Should we really be penalised? In an ideal world, no, we should not.

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The difficulty stems from a widespread lack of understanding. Many people are drinking sports drinks despite rarely if ever engaging in sports, potentially to the detriment of their health. It doesn’t help that some brands market their high-sugar/high-caffeine fizzy ‘energy drinks’ to young people.


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Although the sporting community should not be penalised, we do need to communicate clear messages to help people understand the dangers of excess sugar and the benefits of exercise.

Even for active people, consuming the right amount of sugar, in the right forms, isn’t straightforward, since everyone’s metabolism is slightly different.

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New technology in the form of continuous glucose monitors may help. Originally developed for people with diabetes, these devices take a reading every five minutes, letting you track your blood glucose continuously.

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Although too expensive for personal use at the moment, they are an exciting new development that could prove key in nutrition for performance.

For the time being, we should not demonise sugar; we need to work to understand it better so as to achieve both our health and fitness goals.

  • judith

    and the economic forces pushing high carb “treats” and now “sports drinks” and “energy bars” – these are the same companies who market cigarettes. Ads are aimed at the young whose behaviour may be then influenced for the rest of their lives

  • cheesyfriday

    “Of course it ends the discussion because that pro cyclist “”comment was in
    response to some nonsense about athletes performing better on low carb.”

    And
    I’ve just provided you the names of some top endurance athletes who
    didn’t rely on a high carb diet, 2 of the best ever in their discipline.
    So you may have ended the discussion a little prematurely.

    “All of these documentaries and papers it’s being suggested we read used to say the same about fat.”

    Well
    by definition they didn’t. They are different papers by different
    people. And some of them were written years ago, so it’s not simply a
    new fad. Many people have been railing against the effects of sugar for
    decades.

    “My advice, look at the people who tell you what to eat – what their diet
    is, what their lifestyle is – what effect it is having on them.”

    Ok,
    well I know a guy of 48 eating a paleo diet. He has the body of a 25
    year old gymnast and the flexibility to match, and his athletic
    performance seems to be improving. Does that mean I should go paleo? Or
    should I read up, and try things for myself?

    “Fad diets are bad, not interesting”

    True,
    but lower carb diets aren’t just a fad. The current diet, based on
    processed carbs and sugars, is fairly new. In historical terms it counts
    as little more than a fad, it’s just a fad that’s lasted for your whole
    lifetime so we consider it “normal”.

    But it’s not so long ago
    that breakfast cereals were unheard of, bread wasn’t so soft and easy to
    digest, rice and pasta were only eaten in certain parts of the world
    and sugar was harder to get hold of. Even fruit was restricted to a few
    months of the year in most of the world.

    You’ve noted that most people are fat, and you seem happy enough to dismiss that as some kind of failing on their part.

    But
    some recent research seemed to suggest that over the last 30 or 40
    years people’s calorie intake is falling (as is the level of manual
    work of course), yet the population still gets fatter.
    Now inevitably
    lots of people (and I’m sure you’re one of them) refuse to believe this
    is true. They blame video games, and TV, and greedy people lying about
    what they really stuff in their fat faces. And maybe there’s some truth
    in that. But it doesn’t change the fact that most people are fat, and
    40-50 years of telling people to eat a low fat high carb diet has made
    them fatter. You are an exception, not the norm. That’s great for you,
    but it actually makes your experiences less relevant to the wider
    population.

    Telling people to just eat less doesn’t seem to be
    working, so I’d suggest that we either accept living in a fat world, or
    we look for other solutions. And looking at lower carb diets, which are
    actually far more “traditional” than our current standard diet, doesn’t
    seem like a terrible place to start looking.

    As for cyclists and
    athletes. Well again, the trend for a high carb diet with lots of sugary
    drinks is fairly new (I mentioned the pre war cyclists diet). And there
    is growing concern about tooth decay amongst altletes, especially
    cyclists. There are also plenty of people developing type 2 diabetes
    without being fat (Steve Redgrave being a notable example). Most of the
    stuff marketed at cyclists (drinks, bars and gels) is pretty recent, so I
    think we should treat them with a degree of caution, just as we should
    “fad” diets. But we should recognise that the current western diet is
    actually pretty new, and may one day be considered a “fad”.

  • judith

    PS I do find the low carb diet very interesting from a metabolic point of view – surely it is better to “train ” one’s liver to deliver an even blood glucose level than to have a see-saw effect from ingesting fast carbs…

  • judith

    Thank you cheesyfriday!!!
    I fear Michael is not a fan of B F Skinner ( determinism vs free choice). Or of an enquiring mind wondering if course b might be better than course a for some if not all.
    However the health budget is finite & the current cost of type 2 diabetes over 10 billion pounds per year. any responsible government should be trying all reasonable methods to spend our tax money responsibly. mexico has seen a reduction in the purchasing of soft drinks with taxation.

  • cheesyfriday

    Michael, is it the carbs that make you so aggressive?
    I think Judith has put across some very interesting points, backed with research, in a reasonable tone of voice. Strange that that should make you angry.

    You say that “Pro cyclists eat carbs” as if that ends the discussion, but of course few of us are pro cyclists. Few of us expend the energy they do in the way they do. And pro cyclists weren’t always so carb fixated. Pre war I believe raw eggs were one of the staple foods of the peleton.

    There have been endurance athletes who’ve had considerable success on a low carb/high protein diet. Look up Phil Maffetone and his work with the triathletes Mark Allen and Mike Pigg if you’re interested in this stuff.

  • judith

    In case yawning overcomes you – please try and find a talk by Prof Hugh Montgomery from University College Hospital London – on the genetics of survival. (“Born to Die – the genetics of Survival”) We may think it is our intrinsically virtuous natures and moral superiority which lead us to exercise – but probably not. There are genes influencing our decision to walk up the stairs – or take the lift. To try hang gliding (or gambling, or drugs) – our willingness for thrills. To be good at sprinting, or marathons. There are genes influencing our hypoxic ventilatory drive, our mitochondrial coupling and our efficiency in exchanging oxygen for watts.

    1) there is quite a lot of interesting data on low carb diets and metabolism with exercise. I find that an approach of using mixed protein/fat carb snacks works for me and I feel that any “fast carb” requirement (goos, jelly beans, etc) is a failure to eat regularly enough. I am not an expert however.

    2) Genetics is the major driver of type 2 diabetes. Admittedly, some people need to become morbidly obese to develop it, but with the worst genetic make up, people can have type 2 diabetes with a BMI of 18. What is that if not luck? (bad luck…). If you have type 2 diabetes, a low carb diet can be a cornerstone to treatment.

    3) we will all die eventually. The purpose of public health initiatives is to minimise premature, preventable causes of death. It was tragic to see many people dieing of lung cancer in their 40s when smoking rates approached 85%; it is now tragic to see people blind, on dialysis, losing limbs from type 2 diabetes. The WHO has discussion papers on this. It is frustrating to see “business” targeting lower socioeconomic groups with highly addictive combinations of salt sugar and fat. This land mark approach by the UK govt may help.

    4) I agree that caloric excess causes obesity, no matter what the source, but carb excess fuels type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, there are essential amino acids and essential fatty acids, but NO esssential carbs.

    5) My statistics knowledge is shaky, but my understanding was that if 75% of a population is “x” then that is “normal”. The UK govt has made a ground breaking move against big business to try and improve the health of a large proportion of the population.

    6) I think I am extremely lucky. My parents seem to have bequeathed me pretty functional genes, I was lucky to be brought up on a farm and roam around at will. Good food, exercise and education were all highly valued. Maybe I have the DRD4 Exon 3 polymorph for thrill seeking as I have gone hang gliding, abseiling, canyoning, ski touring and prefer mtbs. I have recently done some work on Mornington Is in the Gulf of Carpentaria. There were children there who had been given soft drink in their bottles as toddlers. They had severe dental caries at 5 years of age. thus chewing was difficult or impossible. Their parents were unlikely to insist they attend school. I wish the Australian govt would ban soft drink. I have no real idea how I would have turned out in such an environment but the risk taking gene would push one to alcohol and drugs in many cases.

    7) This is a pretty emotional post – but I can’t understand how so many people think they are “good” rather than “lucky”. What did you do to deserve the genes and life influences that have led to a healthy life? I just got born in a lucky situation with lucky genes. I am overawed by colleagues who were refugees, or had family situations with minimal support.

  • Michael

    You’re just writing nonsense Judith.

    Pro cyclists eat carbs. This is well known and documented. To suggest they “perform better on lower carb high protein diet” is complete garbage.

    Eating carbs doesn’t cause type 2 diabetes. Being overweight leads to it.

    Obesity hasn’t “overtaken smoking” – it’s just that people have stopped smoking. If you address the #1 cause of death, people don’t stop dying, you just get a new #1 cause. This should have been obvious if you’d thought about it.

    The obesity epidemic is caused by overeating not by carbs.

    The fixation on carbs is as flawed as the old fixation on fat.

    Of course the current fat population have insulin issues. This is because they are overweight! You can’t do studies on normal people any more because 75% of the population are overweight. This makes the majority of the studies completed these days completely irrelevant to any normal human being.

    I’m not “lucky”, I’m just not fat, ergo, my body functions as it should. Ergo, I can happily eat carbs.

    Which I have done, as I said, for nearly 50 years. Without getting fat and without restricting calories or starving myself.

    If you want to be thin then eat carbs and go cycling.

  • judith

    read the 2010 banting memorial lecture by david matthews: excess carbs cause fat, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes……..athletes tend to perform better on a lower carb higher protein diet.You may be lucky enough to tolerate a high carb intake – what about those with less favourable genes (eskimos, indigenous australians, maoris? Obesity has overtaken smoking as the major cause of disease in first world countries.

    just a shame they can be so delicious

  • Michael

    For nearly 50 years I’ve never had a need to measure my blood sugar once, let alone connect myself to a machine to constantly monitor it.

    I eat loads of carbs and go cycling and I’m 70kg at 5′ 11″ Carbs don’t make you fat. My advice look at the weight of the doctor or scientist telling you what you shouldn’t eat and if they are fat just ignore it.

  • Adam Beevers

    Pointless

  • llos25

    Well I never knew that, what are they saying again.

  • Howmanyjackos

    Another in depth article..