Sugar: poison or nectar? Better understanding is needed

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.