When you think of sugar, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the crystalized white sugar you grew up watching your grandma pour into the cake batter, or is it your favorite dessert–a warm cookie, a fudgy brownie, or ice cream? If you thought of sweet, indulgent food, you are not alone.
Sugar's Sour Reputation
The word “sugar” has a not-so-sweet rep in the health world, and that’s because it is usually referred to as “added sugar.” A diet high in added sugars is associated with an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancer, fatty liver disease, and tooth decay (Source 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). This is why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends added sugar to account for less than 10% of total calories consumed–and why food companies are now required to display the amount of added sugars on nutrition labels.
But in a dietitian’s dictionary, “sugar” does not have just this one definition. Sugar is the molecule that carbohydrates break down into, which the body converts into energy. In fact, glucose, the simplest form of carbohydrates, is the body’s preferred source of energy and is essential for the brain. When carbohydrates are absent from the diet, the body goes through an entire process to instead convert proteins and fats into glucose…that’s how essential sugar is. However, before we can determine whether sugar is a boxer’s friend or enemy, we need to make a few important distinctions.
Refined or “added” sugars come from sugar cane or sugar beets, and are heavily processed into a syrup or powdered form, such as high-fructose corn syrup or table sugar.
Found in: sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, frozen desserts, candy, and several packaged goods deemed as “healthy,” such as granolas, cereals, sports drinks, energy bars, sauces, and salad dressings
Natural sugars are present in carbohydrate-rich foods and are accompanied by fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Found in: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and legumes
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
How Are Sugars Processed in the Body?
Carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars and then absorbed into the bloodstream. When the sugar level rises in the blood, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin which is responsible for moving sugar from the blood into the cells where it is used as energy.
Refined sugars lack nutrients and fiber, so the sugar molecules are “free” and easily absorbed into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to rise quickly, and subsequently, fall quickly.
Persistent high blood sugar levels can lead to diabetes and complications such as nerve damage, vision loss, kidney damage, and cardiovascular disease (Source).
Natural sugars are accompanied by dietary fiber, an essential nutrient for regulating blood sugar levels. Natural sugars are broken down more slowly than refined sugars, so blood sugar levels rise gradually, without a significant spike (Source).
Sugar and Sports Performance
Role of Natural Sugars
Nutrient-dense carbohydrates support exercise performance
Carbohydrates are the substrates most efficiently metabolized by the body and are able to provide rapid energy during high-intensity workouts, such as boxing
A carbohydrate-rich diet is associated with increased muscle glycogen stores, delayed onset of fatigue, and can support exercise over a wide range of intensities
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that at least 50% of an athlete’s total calories come from nutrient-dense carbohydrates such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables (Source 1, 2, 3)
Role of Refined Sugars
Refined sugars in engineered sports performance products, such as energy gels, energy bars, and sports recovery drinks, can be adequate for some athletes
These products are designed to help sustain energy levels during strenuous or prolonged bouts of exercise and are appropriate when glucose needs to be replenished at an accelerated rate
So, What’s The Verdict?
The majority of the sugar in a boxer’s diet should come from nutrient-dense, high-fiber natural sugars, such as those found in:
Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, cereal, oats), legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy), fruits and vegetables
Refined sugars, on the other hand, should be kept at a minimum as they do not provide significant nutrition and can be harmful to human health when consumed regularly.
However, for athletes engaging in high-endurance exercise, refined sugars can be used as quick and effective sources of energy to fuel performance before, during, and after vigorous exercise
Boxers should aim to obtain at least 50% of their total daily calories from nutritious sources of carbohydrates to support exercise performance and proper recovery. Learn more on why boxers should never ditch carbohydrates.
Athletes, and especially boxers, whether training at home or competing in the ring, need to take special care to maintain a balanced diet. Knowing which types of sugars to consume and when is part of training.