Is Sugar Bad For Athletes?

Greenletes / Sports Nutrition / Is Sugar Bad For Athletes?

Last updated on April 7th, 2021 at 08:15 am

In Episode 4 of the Greenletes Podcast, we discuss all things sugar and whether or not it’s bad for athletes. Get the inside scoop on sugar from nutrition expert and author of Sugar Shock, Samantha Cassetty.

Sugar is a divisive topic. Some people think you shouldn’t have any sugar. Others think sugar in moderation is fine. It’s very difficult to find the middle ground when it comes to the sweet stuff. 

That’s why I dedicated an entire podcast episode to all things sugar. For this episode, I lined up a very special guest who is an expert in all things sugar.

Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD is the co-author of Sugar Shock. Sam previously served as the nutrition director for Good Housekeeping and nutrition correspondent for Drop 5 Lbs with Good Housekeeping on the Cooking Channel.

Currently, she’s a columnist for Sam provides a positive approach to balanced eating and works to empower her clients with smart strategies, approachable advice, and food and lifestyle solutions that make it easier to live more healthfully. 

Sam Cassetty headshot

In this episode

In this episode Natalie and Sam chat about:

  • the difference between natural and added sugars 
  • whether or not fruit (and dried fruit) have “too much sugar”
  • the “sugar cycle” and how to break it
  • how to satisfy sugar cravings
  • different forms of sugar and whether one is healthier than another
  • the low down on artificial sweeteners, stevia and monkfruit
  • how added sugars in sports drinks benefit athletes
  • the glycemic index and if it’s helpful for athletes

For a run-down of all the important topics, read on…

Natural versus added sugar

When discussing sugar, it’s important to distinguish between the two types. There’s natural sugar, which is the sugar that’s inherent in fruits and vegetables. And then there’s added sugar, which is added to foods for flavor. 

Cassetty says that when she’s talking about added sugars, she tries to be very clear. “I am talking about what the manufacturer adds to foods, like a healthy seeming whole grain bread or a flavored oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, granola bar, soda, or blended coffee drink,” she says. She adds that those are the top sources of added sugars in our diet, besides the obvious candy and dessert. [Related: 25 Vegetarian No Added Sugar Snack Ideas]

Natural sugar, on the other hand, is the sugar that is naturally present in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes and dairy. “The sugar in these foods is typically in very small amounts and it comes packed with other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, or protein,” says Cassetty.

Since those foods contain beneficial nutrients, for example, protein in milk or fiber from fruit, the sugar that is naturally present in those foods is absorbed slowly and does not cause the same impact as added sugars.

Does fruit have too much sugar?

“The question about sugar in fruit is one of my pet peeves, because it’s such a misplaced concern,” says Cassetty. “I always look at this in the context of your overall diet, what would you be eating instead of that piece of fruit?,” she adds.  If the answer is “a cookie”, then it’s obviously better to eat the fruit. Cassetty says it really depends on how you’re consuming that food and then also your nutrition goals. 

The Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans eat at least two servings of fruit every day, and unfortunately most Americans don’t meet their needs. Fitness enthusiasts and athletes may need a bit more than that. “If you’re hungry and going a long stretch between meals and the day calls for an additional snack, fruit is going to be a healthier choice than a lot of the other things that you could be eating instead,” she says.

What about the sugar in dried fruit? Since the fruit is dehydrated, the portion size shrinks. For example, the sugar in a cup of grapes might be similar to that in ¼ cup of raisins.  “But typically in studies, when they’re looking at people who eat dried fruits, there doesn’t seem to be anything tied to weight problems or really any problems,” says Cassetty. 

What are sugar cravings?

“Sugar acts on pathways in the brain that are associated with addiction,” says Cassetty. “It is not to say that you have the same exact reaction to sugary foods that you would have from  something more seriously addictive,” she adds, “but when you eat foods that are sugary…it’s basically lighting up those pathways and telling you “that felt pretty good”.” 

In other words, when you eat sugary foods, the brain recognizes that it likes it and wants more of it. As you continue to feed that desire, your tolerance for sugar goes up and you constantly want more of it.  “Also, since sugar shows up in so many different foods, even ones that we think of as healthy, like oat milk, you’re basically training your taste buds that something plain is not acceptable,” she adds.

When you switch to an unsweetened variety of a food, you may not get the same physiological response. You have to eat the less sweet food several times to retrain your tastebuds to tolerate less sugar. 

Tips to reduce sugar intake

The recommendations for added sugar intake are:

  • six teaspoons per day (or 25 grams) for women
  • nine teaspoons per day (or 36 grams) for me 

If you’re constantly going above that, it’s very hard to manage your cravings and break that cycle. These tips will help you reduce your overall sugar intake

1. Eat protein in the morning 

“When they look at MRI scans of people who eat a protein rich breakfast, it shows that the cravings areas in the brain have lower activity,” says Cassetty. That protein rich breakfast also helps keep you fuller longer. And other studies suggest that may result in less snacking and overeating in general. 

2. Develop an eating routine.

“If you’re skipping meals or going a long time between meals, you’re causing your blood sugar to dip, you get too hungry, and then it’s going to be really hard to stay on top of those cravings,” she says. It’s best to come up with an eating plan that includes at least 3 meals throughout the day. 

3. Get enough sleep

“One thing that I think surprises people is how sleep and sugar cravings are connected,” says Cassetty. If you aren’t sleeping well, it intensifies your cravings for sweets. You will deem those sugary foods especially rewarding when you’re tired. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Set a bedtime routine, in which you go to bed at the same time everyday. 

4. Pinpoint where sugar craving show up

This is difficult, but you have to recognize when sugar craving shows up and why. During the pandemic, many people crave sweets out of boredom. “Understand when you’re vulnerable and plan ahead so that you have ways to address those emotions,” says Cassetty.

She recommends pausing when you go into the kitchen and asking yourself what you’re feeling. “Am I hungry, tired, bored or stressed? And then it’s time to make a decision. Are you going to eat?”. She says you can also choose to listen to music, step outside for a minute, stretch or do another activity that calms you down. This will manage cravings in the long run.  

Is sugar in sports drinks bad for athletes?

Sugar is a form of carbs. And for people who engage in endurance sports, like running, replacing carbs becomes important after about 60 minutes of exercise. The body has a stored form of carbs called glycogen, and that glycogen gets used up after about 60 minutes. That’s why sports drinks have sugar in them. 

The simple sugar in sports drinks are easy to digest, providing quick energy into the blood stream. Sugar also helps with fluid uptake, which is necessary for hydration. You can make your own sports drink, but you should absolutely add sugar to it, like honey or maple syrup.

“I think in the case of athletes, it certainly makes sense to monitor the sugars that you’re taking in elsewhere, but not to avoid those drinks when you need them,” says Cassetty. “However, I think those drinks are often overused by non-athletes,” she adds. For instance, if you spend an hour on the spin bike or workout for 45-minutes per day, you likely don’t need a sports drink.  

“If you’re exercising for an hour and a half or longer, particularly if you get drenched in sweat or if it’s really hot or humid where you’re exercising, those are conditions that would necessitate a sports drink,” she adds. 


SHAPE article on Sports Drinks

Follow Sam on social media @nutritionistsam or visit her website
Buy Sam’s book Sugar Shock! (affiliate link)

Follow Natalie on social media @greenletes or visit

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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