Sweet Little Lies - Sugar and Cycling

Sweet Little Lies – Sugar and Cycling

Part 2: Sugar and Cycling

Rethink the sports gels and drinks and I really mean rethink them.

What is the dirtiest 4 letter word in the English language? It is not what you are thinking, though this one is responsible for plenty of bad things. I will give you a clue – it has to do with the food we eat – with nutrition and is the answer to the question what a US president, a scientist and some farmers have in common. So read on for the answer.

In the first part of the series I covered carbohydrates. Quoting directly where that post where the last installment left off:

“The human body is perfectly capable of regulating it’s energy balance through the hormones insulin and leptin, that no calorie counting methodology can better. In addition there is no essential need for carbohydrates in the human metabolism. Ingestion of carbohydrates, particularly ones that are very rapidly absorbed (refined carbohydrates present in any processed food) leads to elevation of blood glucose and subsequent release of insulin that causes the storage of excess energy as fat and inhibition of using fat as fuel. Persistently elevated levels of insulin block the action of the starvation hormone leptin, effectively tricking the body that it’s in a state of malnutrition with all of the common symptoms such as increased appetite, low energy, etc.  Furthermore the insulin induced starvation increases the body’s need for preserving energy (into fat) hence causing further release of the energy stowaway hormone insulin into a vicious circle, with obesity and metabolic syndrome as the final stages.”

There are two very important facts that follow up on the above conclusion.

1. Carbohydrate Intolerance

First,  each one of us possesses varying levels of carbohydrate INtolerance, and as any intolerance it is causing ill health effects with Type 2 diabetes  (part of metabolic syndrome) being the ultimate result. When you consume a meal with carbohydrates in it, they get broken down to glucose and shoveled into the bloodstream,in response the beta cells in the pancreas release insulin. Insulin is the key that unlocks the cellular door that allows energy to be stored, the glucose to be taken away and accumulate as glycogen within the liver and the muscles and most importantly to stockpile the excess glucose as fat. If everything is working fine and you are insulin sensitive, your body would quickly shunt the glucose into cells, dropping blood glucose and not needing extra insulin. When you are insulin resistant your cells do not respond correctly to the insulin so the glucose in the blood remains high, causing the release of more and more insulin, ultimately frying your pancreas so you will need insulin from external sources via injections etc. Why is that so important?

We all exist in the continuum between insulin sensitive and resistant and it is genetically determined, there is nothing you can do about it for your entire life (if you have Type 2 diabetes in your family you are most likely on the resistant end of the scale). What this means is that there is an amount of carbohydrates that you can tolerate/handle before you go above your pancreas’ capability  – usually 50-200g per day. The amount is individual and if you exceed it long enough (10-20+yrs), you will get Type 2 diabetes and all the complications that come with it, there is no if, just how soon and we do get more insulin resistant as we age. By doing exercise and hence gaining/using muscle, you obtain metabolically active tissue that can burn the glucose, however, the amount of glucose that the tissue can absorb is still limited by what you inherited from your parents so if you eat a diet rich in carbohydrates you will still develop metabolic problems, insulin resistance and turn all those excess carbs into fat. A study performed in 2007 by Petersen et al. took two groups of young (~25yrs) and lean individuals. The participants were separated into insulin resistant and sensitive and they were fed a carb rich meal. The insulin secretion in the insulin resistant group skyrocketed as well as the formation of new fat (blood triglycerides). The scary part is that those people did not realise they could not handle carbohydrates and if they are to follow the accepted ‘health advise’ to avoid fats and eat 60% of their calories from carbohydrates, they will get sick. Five time olympic gold medalist rower Steve Redgrave was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age 35, you can be assured that he got enough exercise, he’s got the hardware to prove it, however, he is most likely very carbohydrate intolerant and ate the accepted ‘high carbohydrate athlete diet.’ I repeat again, the human body has no essential need for carbohydrates and at the same time we each possess a tolerance threshold for them. The most typical symptoms of carbohydrate intolerance include: sleepiness after meals, ‘brain fog’ when hungry and severe sweet food cravings and the need to snack every 2-3hours, sometimes even migraine headaches.

 We eat what we don’t need and too much of it and it is making us sick.

2. Glucose and YOU: Past and Present

The second point is a snapshot of the work Dr. Arlan Rosenbloom who performed a good number of glucose tests in the 1970s. In non-diabetic humans the fasting glucose range is 3.9 and 5.5 mmol/L (70 to 100 mg/dL) and the mean level should be around 5.5 mmol/L (100 mg/dL) with some variation during the day and not exceeding 6.9 mmol/L (125 mg/dL). In the 1970 we were around the lower end of the scale, currently a good percent of the world population is into the pre-diabetic range and they don’t even know it, with rates of hypertension, weight gain, heart disease, gout and whole range of other chronic problems becoming the normal part of ‘getting old’ and keeping the pharma industry rich and happy.

The big question is why is it all happening and here comes the dirtiest 4 letter word in the English language I mentioned earlier:

It’s corn or Iowa, whichever one you prefer.

Marketing, bad science, politics and profit all converged to come to that more than 50% of the world population is pre-diabetic and sick and getting worse.

I already mentioned Ancel Keys and his work labelling saturated fat as bad and ultimately culminating in the infamous McGovern report in 1977 creating the dietary guidelines that the western world still more or less follows to this day – get most of your calories from carbohydrates, rice and grains. In addition if food is expensive people really don’t like it and the first person they blame is the government. Richard Nixon knew that and in 1971 he appointed Earl “Rusty” Butz as his Secretary of Agriculture who started government subsidies (read lots of money) for farmers for massive planting of commodity crops, such as corn, “from fencerow to fencerow” which led to surplus and hence making corn cheap and putting into almost everything food related. Excellently documented in the movie King Corn by the way. In addition in 1970 a Japanese laboratory developed an enzyme to convert cornstarch to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), making the constantly fluctuating world sugar prices a non-issue.

Subsidies are easy money and no sane farmer would give it away and if it gets taken away governments fall, so no self respecting officeholder would commit political suicide by losing the corn growing state Iowa.

Now you have food that has the fat removed so it tastes like cardboard. How do you fix it? With sugar and you as well have even better with a much much cheaper  alternative – HFCS. The rest is as they say is history and no matter what happens with the world economy, if you want to make a profit invest in a food processing company.

Granted for the reasons mentioned earlier in this post, cornstarch and grain based foods skyrocket blood glucose since they are more or less pure glucose that gets absorbed almost instantly, consequently leading to a an insulin high/glucose low and the midday ‘kill everyone in sight food cravings’ with this cycle endlessly repeating with you ultimately becoming fat among other problems. HFCS and table sugar (sucrose) are even more interesting….


Sugar is a complex carbohydrate, it’s composed of one molecule glucose and one molecule fructose. To our body it doesn’t matter since the enzyme sucrase cleaves it almost instantly, so you are left with one molecule of glucose and one of fructose.

Sugar and cycling

Glucose is the energy molecule that every cell/organism on Earth can use, from bacteria to us (and cancer cells’ only energy source, known as the Warburg effect). When you eat something, say 100kcal, composed primarily of glucose – ie white bread, pasta, rice, etc., you get an insulin response and 80% of the glucose gets used by the rest of the body (muscles, etc.) while 20% makes it’s way into the liver and there most of it gets converted to glycogen – a non toxic energy storage. Some of the glucose would get to the liver’s mitochondria (the energy burning cell parts) and get utilized and if you don’t burn it all, you make fat in the form of very low density lipoprotein (VLDL). VLDL causes heart disease and is responsible for obesity so you don’t want a lot of it, however, it is a small percentage of the 20kcal so it’s not a huge amount and your body can more or less handle it (more on that in an upcoming post). Most importantly the brain sees the insulin so it knows you ate so sends signals to not eat more. Hence the advise to wait 20min before going for more food.

Since we are in the liver so to speak, let’s take an example of another carbohydrate that gets metabolized there predominantly – ethanol or alcohol, or booze whatever you want to call it. Ethanol was once sugar and fermentation made it into the stuff you know. You take a shot of liquor for another 100kcal, the stomach and the intestines take 10% as a first pass effect and the kindeys, muscles and brain take another 10%. The remaining 80kcal make it to the liver, you know that. What happens next?

First alcohol gets converted to acetaldehyde which in turn causes the creation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which are the equivalent of inflammation causing firebombs to your cells. Aldehydes crosslink proteins; formaldehyde is used in embalming fluids for tissue preservation. Hence why alcoholics get liver cirrhosis. Through a further processing the acetaldehyde also ends up in the mitochondria and unlike the measly 20kcal from glucose the 80kcal (4x!!!) get converted to VLDL and free fatty acids. Since the liver cannot handle a lot of fat, the VLDL gets exported into the bloodstream (dyslipidemia) and the free fatty acids go to muscles causing muscle insulin resistance. Some of it doesn’t even make it out of the liver causing fatty droplets to accumulate. Drink long enough and you get fatty liver disease/hepatitis.  It all results in a nice buzz for you(r brain) , however, this is also addictive so there really is no free lunch. That alcohol causes dependance and it is bad for you is well known and it is heavily taxed and regulated and you can’t legally have any until you are 18 (or 21).

What you can have is all the soft (fizzy) drinks and fruit juices you want. When I was in college if you were the designated driver you could drink sodas all night long for free in the local bars. So you have a 100kcal of orange juice/soda. Sucrose is 50/50 glucose/fructose as mentioned above and you already know what happens with the 50kcal of glucose – 10kcal will make it into the liver, the rest will be used by your body. However, ALL 50kcal of the fructose will be taken up since only the liver can absorb it. First fructose does not cause an insulin response, your brain does not see it. In order to be processed the liver enzymes in charge  release uric acid as a by product. Uric acid causes gout as well as inhibiting the production of nitrous oxide which is responsible for regulating your blood pressure (you get hypertension). Further down the process it is not all bad since we can convert it to glucose to replenish glycogen and why there is HFCS in sports drinks. It’s all nice and pretty if you are glycogen depleted, most of us aren’t and even elite athletes take some time to go there (ie a marathon). Unfortunately as fructose keeps going down it’s path it again makes it to the mitochondria and as you are very well aware with the case with alcohol, all those calories of extra energy now make a lot of fat. Furthermore fructose inhibits the liver enzymes involved in the glucose insulin response. You need higher and higher insulin  and yes you get liver insulin resistance, leading to very high insulin levels masking the satiety signal  for the brain (see Part 1 for the complete picture) making your body think you are starving.  But you just ate!!!! And there lies the big problem and why young children get fatty liver disease, hypertension and obesity and alcoholism like conditions.

Sweet Little Lies

Fructose is very sweet, the sweetest of all sugars and is addictive. We naturally seek it since nothing in nature is sweet and poisonous at the same time. For the brain sugar causes the same response as cocaine and other drugs – it ticks all the boxes for addiction. Food for us is directly linked to the reward parts of the brain to begin with otherwise you would never get off you behind and eventually die of starvation and that would be the end of the human race. Add the sweet tooth we all have hardwired and you have a recipe for disaster, after all a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and nobody ever craves vegetables.

Sugar and Cycling


The food industry knows that and they have a term called the ‘bliss point,’ they test a lot of combinations of salt sugar and fat to make food taste good and leave you wanting more. Micheal Moss goes into great detail in his bookSalt Sugar Fat.

As a consequence, sugar has found it’s way into almost everything, not just soft drinks and sweets since it is the perfect substitute for the removed fat. Unripe tomatoes for that spaghetti sauce, greenish oranges for that orange juice, subpar meat for that hotdog – no problem put some sugar in it. Just check the label on any piece of food, you will be surprised.

It was almost the same time in the 1970s when Ancel Keys was creating some of his ‘best work’ when another nutritionist – John Yudkin published

Pure White and Deadly, describing all the negative effects of sugar. He did not receive much media attention and even the rotting teeth in children disappeared due to fluorination of the water – sugar fell off the radar until recently. As such the food industry is responding and calling sugar into a plethora of names – too many to list here, however, some are evaporated cane juice, etc. Brown or white, organic or rainforest safe, sugar is still sugar. Agave nectar as well is mostly pure fructose. Honey is natural and pure glucose fructose syrup, however, it is guarded by bees so mother nature protected us to a degree.

But, But, But…fructose is in fruits and they are good for you!!!

Yes and yes, however, what is also in fruits is fiber as well as vitamins and a whole array of micronutrients. What fiber does is that since we cannot digest it, it lines up the inside of our small intestines forming a sort of fine mesh so food gets absorbed much slower and , same happens with the fructose and everything else for that matter. Fiber is the arch enemy of the food processing industry since you cannot freeze foods with it and it takes a lot of space; most of the processed food out there gets absorbed very fast with the blood sugar/insulin spikes described above as well as the rapid absorption of fructose with all the negatives.

The same applies to smoothies and freshly squeezed fruit juices. The fiber gets chopped up/removed and fructose is free to do it’s job. If you are going to have fructose have it in it’s natural unprocessed state, fruits are still good for you.

Sports Drinks, Gels and Bars

Sugar, fast carbohydrates and the like are the staple into sports nutrition products and if you are to believe the marketing you need lots of them at a strict schedule or your athletic performance will suffer. Gels, drinks, powders and bars in shiny packages with all of our favorite athletes on the covers. The first and foremost problem is as mentioned in Part 1 of the cycling nutrition series is that carbohydrates are not essential for humans, we don’t need them. We have only ~2000kcal worth of glycogen stored and can absorb about 350kcal/hour, while we can burn 750+kcal/hour. For endurance sports that is major limitation, while at the same time even the leanest of us have ~40,000kcal worth of fat. As far as the body is concerned fat is stored energy and the one thing that causes energy storage and inhibits fat burning is insulin that in term is a direct response to glucose and ingestion of refined carbohydrates. That is the paradox, which brings me to the conclusion of Part 2 in the Cycling Nutrition Series.


Calorie is a calorie is easily the most incorrect statement when it comes to nutrition since not all calories are created equal. Especially if they come from refined carbohydrates and/or table sugar, particularly fructose that is not found in its natural state – fruit. Fructose is not seen by the brain and causing huge production of new fat, constant feeling of starvation and ultimately insulin resistance (Type 2 diabetes). Furthermore coupled to the fact that have no essential nutritional need for carbohydrates, each and everyone of us has a carbohydrate tolerance threshold ranging from 50-200g/day. Exceeding it even slightly, causes permanently elevated blood sugar levels resulting in a constant production of insulin from the pancreas until ultimately overcoming the pancreas’e abilities with one predictable outcome – insulin resistance or Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. At the same time highly refined carbohydrates and especially sugar are a big part of most foods in the supermarket as well as the main ingredient in 99% of the sports nutrition products out there, making you wonder why. Profit is the answer and at least now you have an explanation why is it that there is an ever increasing number of fat and overweight athletes in the endurance sports circuit even though they are some of the most active people out there.

If you found this article thought provoking, please share it (buttons top and/or below) as well as post your experiences and like TheTallCyclist on Facebook and subscribe via RSS or Email for future updates as well as  check the ever-increasing Reading List and the Cycling nutrition series below.

Like TheTallCyclist on Facebook and Subscribe via RSS or Email for future updates.

And of course for even more information check the ever-increasing Reading List and Visual Bookshelf.

I welcome comments, however, before asking a question please visit the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page.

Cycling Nutrition Series

Worth Your Time

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease – Dr. Robert Lustig

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease

Pure White and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It – John Yudkin

Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar Is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It

Salt Sugar Fat – Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us


A drop of support means an ocean of gratitude.

If you find motivation and value in the content of TheTallCyclist, consider making a donation.


All images are copyright to their respective owners.

This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email