Added Sugar + Athletes

Originally Posted on July 19, 2016 by Cocoa Elite

I’ve heard it a million times and I’m guessing you have too… you might even be guilty of saying it yourself:

I’m off of sugar right now
No sugar this week!
I can’t have that, there’s sugar in it

etc etc…

Chances are if you tried this, it was either short-lived or you weren’t really avoiding sugar; as a dietitian I see many people say that they aren’t eating sugar when their diet is actually loaded with hidden sources.

In my professional opinion, yes, you should work to limit the amount of added sugar in your diet.

Added sugar provides calories but little to no nutritional value.

For the average person, this is an unhealthy way to get your calories; we want higher nutrient density than higher caloric density. For an active athlete, however, sugar can provide the pure, fast acting energy source that is needed to fuel performance.

Science even shows that well-trained athletes have an increased ability to process sugar compared to the average person. Does that mean an athlete should sugar load? No! Athletes need to be eating to fuel their performance and athletic goals, which means carefully selecting foods that provide energy and keep the body in a healthy state.

Athletes should zero in on limiting the added sugar intake in their general day-to-day diet, focusing on nutrient dense foods that support the body’s well-being. To promote high performance, athletes should put their sugar intake before, during and after training sessions.

While much of this sugar can come from natural sources, some will have to come from added sources to give the body the boost it needs. While many professional/ elite athletes go on diet trends (gluten free, paleo, fruititarian, etc…) to assist their performance levels, most of them admit to adding sugar back into their key workouts.

Remember, as an athlete you need carbohydrates (and not the complex ones) to give your body usable energy!

So how much sugar do you need? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that added sugars be limited to 10% of total daily calories. While 10% may sound lenient, most adults consume much higher amounts; this is just 200 calories from a standard 2,000 calorie diet.

Is 10% enough for an athlete? Probably.

Athletes tend to have a much higher caloric need due to energy expended during training. For example, if an athlete burns 3,500 calories for a day that includes a 4-hour moderate bike effort, they are allowed 350 calories of added sugar in their day. 


Now, I want to take a moment to address that yes, athletes do need sugar... Here is a post aimed to defend athlete sugar intake by CLIF BAR who is pretty well known for their high amounts of added sugar in their bars (first ingredient!)... Read it here... I agree with this --> Sugar might not be good, but please PLEASE do not replace your added sugars with fake, calorie free sugar substitutes. I wont get started on the NO FAKE SUGAR rant here, but basically, these are chemically derived unnatural components that will not fuel your body in any way. 

Bottom line, replace your added sugar with natural sugar to fuel your athletic needs. 


If this athlete works to limit non-sport related added sugar to 50 calories, that leaves 300 left to promote performance energy. They can consume:

  • 1 banana (no added sugar calories)
  •  1 slice of toast with jam (45 added sugar calories)
  •  1 glass of milk (0 added sugar) before the ride,
  • 3 gels (84 added sugar calories)
  •  1 packet sport chews (44 added sugar calories)
  •  12 ounce sport drink (84 added sugar calories)
  •  another banana (0 added sugar) during the ride,
  • and recover with a smoothie of Cocoa Elite (40 calories added sugar)  plus 1 cup strawberries (0 added sugar).

This amounts to 297 calories of added sugar to support the activity and is within the recommendation of 10% for the athlete’s total caloric intake for the entire day.

The Cocoa Elite Complete Body Recovery Protein is comprised of 27 grams of sugar. This might seem to be significant, but remember 17 grams are from the milk sugar – lactose, making the actual added sugar only 10 grams or 40 calories. So this is an excellent way  to add a daily dose of flavanols to your diet and still be well within your daily added sugar requirement.

The real trick as an athlete is to get out of the mindset of ‘I earned this treat!’ or ‘run to eat’ which leads to consuming too many treat foods outside of exercise when they do little good for the body (think baked goods, candies, alcohol). focus those added sugar calories where they will do the best overall benefit (your training sessions).

Eliminating sugar is daunting and will lead to energy crashes and unhealthy rebound binging. Fortunately, food labels have been revised and will soon begin to point out natural sugars vs. added sugars.

This will be extremely helpful in highlighting which foods have excess added sugars. Athletes should get familiar with which food sources provide natural sources of sugar, like milk and fruit, and which are added sources (check this list) in order to stick to guidelines as much as possible.

Working with a dietitian is an ideal way to learn how to clean up your diet while still fueling your athletic performances.