Sugar and low carbs aren’t culprits

Coaches, trainers, physios and masseurs need to stop imparting part-time advice on diets and supplements.

The author counselling the Indian women’s cricket team at the NCA in Bengaluru.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

An athlete is only as strong as his muscles and brain power. Both require energy sources to run. My first principle of sports performance in a tournament is to ensure that the athlete’s batteries are fully charged. In fact, I believe in dynamic charging, i.e. fuelling as you compete. So when a leading badminton player called and said, “Ryan, I lost in the quarterfinals, I felt dead after the third set. My brain could not focus and my muscles felt heavy, I don’t know what happened,” I was confused but managed to calm the player and said let’s discuss this in the morning when your brain and spirit are refreshed.

Next morning when I spoke to my client, we spent 20 minutes walking through the day, right from his wake up time to his game time at 6 p.m. that evening. Most of what was designed for his breakfast, his lunch and the meal three hours prior to his game was followed to perfection. We then broke down his pre-game preparation.

Sports Nutritionist: Did you have your banana and smoothie one hour prior to the game?

Player: Yes, I did, but I did not have banana and curd and had only protein shake with water.

Sports Nutritionist: Why did you remove the curd and banana, did you not plan to carry it to the venue?

Player: No sir, the physio said not to have carbs before the game.

Sports Nutritionist: Really? (I was surprised at this recommendation) Ok, did you prepare your sports drink that I specially made with 60 grams of glucose and 5 grams of BCAA in 1000 ml of water?

Player: Sir, actually the physio asked me to take a new drink. It was a newly launched sports drink and all the players at our academy were recommended to have it.

Sports Nutritionist: Can you show me a snapshot of this label that you are suddenly trying out during the quarterfinals, on the advice of your physio? (At this point I am fuming, I do not give muscle or tissue manipulation or exercise advice to a player — not my domain. Also you do not try a new product in a live tournament, it’s suicide).

Player: Sir, the product has electrolytes sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride and lemon flavour and has a sweetener in it. It says sir, ‘NO ADDED SUGAR’. Our coach and physio want us to have sugar-free products sir. The product you recommended has glucose sir. That is not good for performance.

Sports Nutritionist: I will explain it to you when we meet in person. Can you arrange for a Skype session with your coach and physio?

Player: Yes sir, I will be there too.

One week later, in a meeting, I went on to explain my interpretation of the myths being floated around and why ‘NO SUGAR’ means nothing to an athlete and why certain sugars like glucose in certain concentrations are saviours and why other sugars like fructose from fruits may be suspect and why you can classify them as harmful to athletes.

I summarised my reasons as follows.

The brain depends on glucose for its main source of energy. In the adult brain, neurons have the highest energy demand requiring continuous delivery of glucose from blood. In humans, the brain accounts for ~2% of the body weight, but it consumes ~20% of glucose-derived energy, making it the main consumer of glucose (~5.6 mg glucose per 100 g human brain tissue per minute). When you are in a match for more than 30 minutes you are on low reserve with regards to glucose from the blood. The body is asking for a top up. If you don’t give it, the mind decides to shut down brain clarity. The player loses his ability to strategise. If you find yourself dipping within 60% of your competition time it’s time to review how you fuel in that condition.

The way to cheat the body into getting topped up for glucose for brain endurance is a 6-8% glucose designer solution. More than 8% results in excess sugar in the blood leading to an insulin spike, further resulting in an almost immediate catastrophic drop in blood glucose levels, leading to a crash. This happens with fruit juices & other energy beverages (10% and above sugar concentration). What happens is when you hear about sugar and the bad effects of it, including the insulin spikes and insulin resistance and more fat deposition due to high fructose (another sugar) consumption, you will tend to cast suspicion even on low levels of glucose. This is what the physio did to the sports solution designed for the player’s weight and sweat rates. Sugar is a culprit, so remove it. You need only electrolytes. Athletic suicide!

Supplement companies design products with a certain purpose and targeted audience. ‘NO SUGAR’ products are actually designed to mimic a health fad. When in reality most of these products are consumed by fitness and weekend warriors who don the mantle of exercise like crazy. These audiences invariably are runners, mountain bikers, dance athletes and a host of hobbyists masquerading as elite athletes. In none of these activities do you need your brain to function. Now ask a squash, badminton, cricket, tennis, hockey, football player, or even a race-car driver and they will say they need their brains for strategy to defeat their opponent. When you take out the glucose the brain will slow down and fog out! Leading academies and support staff are being brainwashed into the ‘Only amino acids and electrolyte theory, minus ANY SUGAR’. I do advocate this non-glucose or sugar only in training and off season, at best. In season and definitely on match day we need our brains for superior functioning. Glucose and allied molecules should be called for duty for mental clarity.

Without nutritionists on a team, players will continue to watch what other players do. Cricketers today have found this new fad of no CARBS with a segment of the team going ‘gung ho’ and everybody towing the line. Every athlete’s metabolism and genes are unique. Making everyone follow a KETO DIET (High fat) or an ATKINS DIET (High protein) is not the scientific path to designing a nutrition or meal plan.

In our country this thought process has gone on for too long. Nutrition cannot be anybody’s domain. Coaches, trainers, physios and masseurs need to stop imparting part-time advice on diets and supplements that are destroying the time-lines of successful experiences which the athlete deserves under scientific basis. It’s time that athletes too sit up and get their nutrition act in sync with their genes and game!

To receive a few scientific articles that support the use of glucose in sporting performance and how low carb diets have not been proved scientifically in the performance domain, write to ryan@quanutrition.com