Insight from the experts part 7

Sue Parfett of the Brookwood Partnership explains the relationship between sugar, nutrition and energy

Sugar is everywhere – or rather the debate about its danger is. You may have heard in the news about the amount of sugar in manufactured food and “sports drinks”. Responsibility for ensuring meals are nutritional is a critical part of our job. So too is providing the right sort of energy for pupils who are active in sports. So the debate about how much and what kind of sugar is needed for performance sport immediately caught my eye.

Nutrition is enormously complicated because of the intricate workings of the human metabolism. For sports performance, nutrition boils down to consuming enough energy and having muscles, created from protein, to act as energy stores. Energy comes mainly from sugars, including carbohydrates. However, the body processes these in different ways: ‘bad’ sugars are released quickly into the bloodstream. This causes the pancreas to give off insulin to drop this blood sugar level. Too much activity of the pancreas at this level can cause it to pack up, potentially causing diabetes. This also demonstrates how the energy highs and lows of ‘bad’ sugar are caused. Carbohydrates with a low glycemic index are absorbed more slowly, giving a gradual, longer release of energy.

As usual, however, things are more complex in practice. Gender, weight, body fat index and basal metabolic index (bmi) all affect energy processing and this can vary from person to person. The body also requires different types of energy for different activities. A sprinter would need a short, concentrated burst, whereas a long-distance runner would need a slow release of energy, and both require careful build-up during training and intake for peak performance at the right time. This is how sports drinks have taken off in popularity. However, like all mass-produced, highly advertised products, a bit of knowledge is definitely a good thing.

Applying some general principles in a school catering environment is not hard. Even when we provide the correct diet for sporting performance, pupils may not eat it. So it is important everyone works together. At one school I visited, a PE teacher encouraged his pupils to binge on chocolate bars for their sugar content before matches – a gross simplification of the problem and one that can be very unhealthy. Because of this, we aim to provide as much information about diet as possible. For example, at an elite sports training centre, we have implemented a six-week food education cycle covering the importance of a balanced diet, hydration, bone health and energy intake, amongst other things.

Similarly, some of our schools have very specific dietary requirements. At The Royal Ballet School it is essential we provide high-energy food while ensuring the pupils stay healthy and strong. When speaking to Alan Winter, chief operating officer at the school recently, he told me that: “Nutrition is a vital part of our students’ education – without the correct diet they cannot perform at their best. Our students are dancing for several hours a day, so it is enormously important we ensure they have the fuel to see them through their training, as well as supporting their growth.”

So the right nutrition for physical performance is crucial. Dave Brailsford confirmed that his system of applying marginal gains was about “nutrition, ergonomics, and psychology. Each improvement may seem trivial, but the cumulative effect can be huge.” Getting enough of the right sort of energy can provide an improvement in performance in any capacity and a good diet is the only way to ensure that. As for the problem of sugary energy drinks, I don’t see how the amount of sugar they contain is necessary. On average, sports drinks contain 16 to 18 grams of sugar in every 500ml, which is more than triple what the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition suggest we ought to consume. Only the highest levels of performance could demand so much. And I haven’t even mentioned what it does to our teeth.

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