Refined Sugar-Based Fueling + Inflammation in Athletes

As a long time endurance athlete, I’ve eaten (and drank) my share of maltodextrin.

Maltodextrin Is a type of carbohydrate that comes in the form of a white powder from rice, corn, wheat, or potato starch. Its makers first cook it, then add acids or enzymes to break it down some more. The final product is a water-soluble white powder with a neutral taste. The powder is used as an additive in the foods above to replace sugar and improve their texture, shelf life, and taste. Its glycemic index is higher than table sugar (1) and is one of the most popular sweeteners used in sports nutrition products.

For many athletes, myself included for a long time, a carb-based fueling model is implemented.

All one has to do is a quick search for any search parameters pertaining to fueling for sport and they’ll have a plethora of products, and peer reviewed studies at their fingertips, all pointing not only to the accolades of using carbs as their preferred fuel choice, but the purported risks of not doing so.

If we pause for a moment and glimpse at another population, one who chooses a sedentary lifestyle, there’s no question that a high carbohydrate diet would be an unwise choice, especially given that most Americans are not eating a high ‘good’ carb diet (such as vegetables, for example), but a highly refined carbohydrate diet.

An alarming statistic from the USDA tells us that American eats (or drinks) 34 teaspoons of sugars a day, which is equal to 500+ calories. This averages more than 100 pounds of sugars per person each year (2).

To that end, no one is likely to be surprised at the notion that that same average American would be best not leaning into a high carb approach.

Which begs the question: if someone is not sedentary, and in some cases quite the opposite, such as an endurance athlete, and their calories are coming from maltodextrin and other sugars such as glucose, maltose, fructose as well as the popular sugar alcohols like erythritol, does the simple act of being an athlete somehow preclude them from developing the health conditions associated with a high refined carbohydrate diet?

Is anyone studying this?

How did we get started on this high carb path in the first place?

The first high-carb protocol was developed in the 1960s when Swedish scientist, Gunvar Ahlborg, used new muscle-biopsy techniques to observe carb storage in the body. He found that athletes who consumed excess carbs stored the surplus of resulting glycogen (the stored form of glucose) in their muscles and liver. He hypothesized that these glycogen stores created a bountiful source of fuel that would improve athletic performance. Since then, athletes have been trying to stuff their muscles with as much glycogen as possible before a performance (3).

When we look at the recommendations for the “average” American population (not athletes), we often turn to the guidelines provided by governing bodies we view as ‘experts’.

Who is funding these organizations? And who’s partnering with them?

The School nutrition association (SNA) strongly encourages partnerships with food and beverage companies (4).

Companies on the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) list of approved continuing education providers include Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Nestlé, and PepsiCo (5).

Similarly, if we look into governing bodies in sport, we see that the American College of Sports Medicine, the very “gold standard” of personal training certification, that I earned, back in the day, is a partner of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (6).

Looking solely at these examples as a business model, it makes perfect sense. A company sponsors another company to conduct research demonstrating why their product is something someone must have.

Let’s imagine for a moment, the idea that humans are actually best suited to go back to their primal roots and lean into the natural physiology to use fat as their primary fuel.

Not dietary fat, but body fat, which is something a human body can be trained to access, whether they start from a healthy percentage of it or not.

From a cognitive perspective, four million years ago, our hominin ancestors’ appetite for fat could be what delivered the energy needed to develop big brains and evolve into modern humans, anthropologists suggest (7).

More and more research is now showing that rchronic consumption of refined carbohydrates has been linked to relative neurocognitive deficits across the lifespan (8).

Because humans evolved in a world where food was available only intermittently, survival required that we have the capacity to store ingested energy for times when none was around (9). Translation: incorporating an intelligently curated IF regime as part of a human diet supports what our bodies inherently know what to do.

A high carbohydrate diet, on the other hand, increase serum triglyceride and insulin resistance, having the greatest adverse effect in insulin-resistant states, such as type 2 diabetes or pregnancy (10) and contribute significantly to the growing obesity rate we are seeing.

High sugar diets have been linked to high blood pressure, which, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Chronic inflammation in the body can be caused by sugar, which leads to excess stress on the heart and blood vessels, which, in turn, increases the risk of premature death and stroke (11).

Yet studies looking at whether or not these risks associated with high sugar diets, even if it is solely during the ‘training window’ that many athletes may opt to approach their regime, in which higher quantities of carbs are eaten only before, during and after training, seem to be few and far between.

The work of Drs Finney and Volek, who’ve done extensive research on sugars and starches and their effect on overall health as well as on athletic performance is one example of an area which, in my opinion needs far more attention.

This article is not intended to do anything other than encourage the proverbial thinking outside of the box.

An athlete who eats an abundance of local, in season produce, mindfully sourced proteins and ample natural fats most of the time yet fuels his running with carbohydrate gels may actually be quite healthy… or he may not be.

I look back at my own training, which for years, was one I’d created with the premise of being completely paleo all the time… but utilizing sports gels during ironman and marathoning.

They did the trick in the sense that I did not experience GI distress and was able to compete at a very high level, but all the while, I just didn’t like the principle of the fueling for myself as it felt like the complete antithesis of what I was (and am) all about.

This was my impetus to dive into learning about fat as my fuel source, back in 2015 and it has served me quite well.

We are all different indeed and what I intend you to take away as a reader is well written in this quote taken from Drs. Phinney and Volek’s site:

“To inspire you to think more carefully about sugars and starches in your diet, and empower you with essential knowledge to help you achieve long-lasting health and well-being.”

Know that your body will know what to do if you do choose to let it remember what its ancient wisdom already knows.

Do the research, add a sprinkle of common sense and as always, tune into what your body is telling you about how you’re feeling and how deeply that is connected to what you are eating, and where it came from.