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Sports Nutrition: Carbs in the News

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Too many of today’s runners believe carbohydrates are “bad.” If that’s true, what does the latest sports nutrition research say? The following studies, presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s 66th Annual Meeting indicate sports scientists agree that carbohydrates (grains, fruits, veggies; sugars, starches) can be health- and performance-enhancing sport foods. As you may (or may not) know, ACSM is a professional organization for sport science researchers, exercise physiologists, dietitians, doctors, and health-care providers for athletes (www.ACSM.org). Here are some answers to questions posed by ACSM researchers.

Does sugar cause Type 2 diabetes?

No. Type 2 diabetes is less about eating sugar, and more about lack of exercise. Most runners can enjoy a little sugar without fear of health issues. Muscles in fit bodies burn sugar for fuel. In unfit bodies, sugar accumulates in the blood. Fitness reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes (T2 Db).

In a 6-week training study to boost fitness, 35 middle-aged men with over-weight or obesity who were at risk for developing T2 Db performed either endurance cycling, weight lifting, or high intensity interval training. Regardless of type of exercise, all types of training improved the bodies’ ability to utilize glucose with less insulin.

These subjects had blood glucose levels within the normal range at the start of the study; their glucose levels improved with exercise. While we need more research to fine-tune the kinds of exercise that best manage blood glucose, rest assured that living an active lifestyle is a promising way to reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Can natural foods replace ultra-processed commercial sport drinks and foods?

Yes, standard (natural) foods can be fine alternatives to commercial sport fuels. Look no farther than bananas! In a study, athletes who enjoyed bananas (for carbs) plus water (for fluid) during a 46 mile (75 km) bike ride performed just as well as those who consumed a sport drink with an equivalent amount of carbs plus water.

Natural foods offer far more than just fuel; they contain abundant bioactive compounds that have a positive impact on health and performance. For example, after the ride with bananas, the cyclists had lower levels of oxylipins (bioactive compounds that increase with excessive inflammation) compared to the sport drink ride. Athletes who believe commercial sports foods and fuel are better than standard foods overlook the benefits from the plethora of bioactive compounds found in real foods. While cyclists, as compared to runners, might have an easier time consuming bananas during exercise, enjoying a pre-run banana would get those bioactive compounds into your body.