Sweet Little Lies – Sugar and Cycling

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

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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 [amazon text=King Corn&asin=B003IAKIZ6] 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 book[amazon text=Salt Sugar Fat&asin=0812982193].

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

[amazon text=Pure White and Deadly&asin=0143125184], 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.

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Home » Food » Sweet Little Lies – Sugar and Cycling

8 replies on “Sweet Little Lies – Sugar and Cycling”


Appreciate the amount of information you put on this blog. I find that for the most of my time low carbohydrate or ‘smart’ (moderate intake of good carbs) carbohydrate diet works just fine. However what about the scenarios like long and intense road racing? For example, where I live races over 4 hours in punchy hill terrains are not uncommon and over the course of the race there would be over 10-15 intervals when you need to ride at 1 to 5 minutes max pace. The level of the pack is anything between cat 1 to cat 3. I got the feeling that after the half of the race few gels help a lot to keep up with the first bunch. It feels very different compared to 20-30 minutes TT, long steady rides or short road race (under two hours), there I fully agree I don’t need fast carbs, fatty food works just fine.

My question is, can you provide some info on whether fast carbs should be consumed or not for repeated VO2 max efforts?

Hi Mikhalit,

Thank you for your comment and the nice words.

I need to give some background information before I get into the real answer, to make sure we are both on the same page. First, as you are aware we (humans) utilize both fat and carbohydrates (glucose) for energy. Common wisdom is that fat is used at very low intensities and as things get hot such as in a punchy race as you mention, it is only glucose that we need and that fat oxidation stops. There are a lot of inaccuracies with that statement. Indeed as the intensity increases the ratio of fat vs. glucose oxidation changes, however, fat burning does NOT stop even at very high intensities. You mention you eat a low carbohydrate diet, however, I need more details on what you consider to be low carb and most importantly how do you train (ie what intensity) or in short are you training according to the MAF method developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone (and described in my article here). Where I am going with this, is that goal number one, also referred to as building your aerobic base, is to become efficient at using fat for energy rather than carbohydrates. As you get better at doing that, the power you produce while burning predominantly fat goes HIGHER, so you spare your carbohydrates so you need to supplement with LESS calories/gels, etc (and yes you also get faster). Alan Couzens has a very good article on the subject. To give you a quick summary you want a muscle that can burn both fat and carbohydrates efficiently since in the high intensities, it is the carbs that you rely on.

Since racing (and longer intense training sessions) is indeed high intensity and you are going heavily into the carbohydrate burning region, even when you are very metabolically efficient, you will need to input some carbohydrates – the question is how much? That you will have to experiment yourself in training/racing, though as I mentioned the more fat you can burn, the less and less carbohydrates from outside sources you will need, while if you don’t burn fat efficiently body carbohydrate is too limited (~2000kcal) and we cannot absorb external sources (gels, sports drinks, etc) fast enough ie you bonk/slow down.

Here is the place for a bit of a chemistry lesson – all those gels and sports drinks are EXTREMELY concentrated so as they get in your stomach/gut two things happen. When exercising digestion is slowed down quite a bit (blood is at the muscles, etc.) so what you take doesn’t get absorbed very fast (~350kcal/hour). Second, now you have a high concentration of carbohydrates inside your gut and a low concentration outside. Since everything is in water, the concentrations need to equalize via osmosis, so water flows directly into your gut. Big concentration gradient = very fast influx or in simple terms diarrhea. The other option is to vomit. People are different, I am in the diarrhea camp, others that I know are in the throwing up one.

Since you want to race fast (high intensity) you actually require carbohydrates for the events you compete in, so what to take in? Quoting Dr. Maffetone’s directions: diluted fruit juice and honey to make a 6-8% solution ie one heaping teaspoon to 90mL of water.

Overall the goal is to be less dependent on external sources. For 1h criterium/TT you shouldn’t need anything same goes even for events in the 2-3h window.

Best of luck with your racing and with carbohydrate supplementation experimentation.


Thanks for the answer, Nicola, and for the link to the article. It says the efficient fat burning athletes run on 1 to 3 ratio of carbs to fat, I guess that’s roughly what I should aim for. I wonder how to measure it, but if my 4 hour road race costs me about 4500 kcal, then i should be able to do it with ~ 500 extra calories (it is already similar to this year results, only I ran out of gas for the last 30 minutes).

Have a great day,

Hi Mikhal,
What Dr. Couzens shows is a good general principle or as I would like to say your mileage may vary.=) The most reliable way to know how much fat/glucose you burn at different intensities is metabolic testing, though for most of us this is not a readily available option. Experimentation is the best way since road racing is not always predictable. With that being said, running out of gas in the last 30min can be caused by a variety of reasons such as staying too much in the wind, etc., etc. The goal should always be to as metabolically efficient as possible (relying on fat as much as possible), and we can’t win them all, that’s the beauty of racing in my opinion. If the numbers correspond as you say, I guess you are already on the right track, of course I need more information on your diet/training to be sure.

A great day to you as well!


Come on, there absolutely are sweet and poisonous things in nature, even a simple Google search would show you that. Don’t accept things at face value just because they fit your favourite narrative at the moment.

Hi Pero,

Indeed there are some poisonous sweet fruits in nature (Belladonna comes to mind). However, the point of this article (and almost all of my posts) is always the bigger picture. Sweet and food are directly related to the reward centers in our brains; this is abused with scientific precision by food companies (the term ‘Bliss point’ as pointed by Michael Moss – publication at the bottom). Refined sugar (as well as refined carbohydrates such as flour corn starch etc.) are highly detrimental to human health, even the food industry is not lying about sugar anymore (look at the amount of ‘sugar-free’ products out there, therefore, it is important not to get focused on small details. Insulin resistance, as I point out in the opening paragraphs, is behind almost all metabolic diseases of this day and the prevalence is increasing globally with staggering leaps, sadly societies are very sick and most of them do not realize it. The idea behind the ‘Food Series’ of articles was to describe, often neglected and sometimes completely ignored facts about our metabolism and food supply. The goal was education, sort of a spark to start a fire and indeed making people question things and not accepting everything in face value, this is why I am always open to comments such as yours.=)


Interesting reading and very well written. One issue though. All these healthy, super-beings hunters and gatherers got out-competed, out-numbered and outsmarted by humble farmers growing wheat, corn or what not . Einstein probably was thinking about theory of relativity with bagel in his hand than eating a pork crackling, right ? Hunters and gatherers did not manage to even invent simple wheel, let alone manage to understand writing. I guess its pretty easy to stay healthy when you are constantly chasing that days worth of food or simply starving and a shaman tells you everything is cool. Also, do you realize that fishing is very much a very recent invention? Or how difficult is to stock up on eggs if you have no chickens ?

Hi Jan,

Thank you for the comment and the nice words. I always advise people to take a look at the bigger picture, since relationships are much more complex than a simple cause/effect relationship. What I mean to say is the fact that hunter gathereres got ‘out-done’ by farmers and agriculture is a pretty simplistic view, though even scientists sometimes forget that assosiciation is not causation – ie agricutlure equals inventing of the wheel and technology/society as we know it today and hunter gatherers equals primitive without writing. Here I can bring up a book that I have *not* read yet (so all I have is second hand information) – Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond which explores pretty much what you mention and descries how a lot of factors, particularly geography led to the domination of one culture over another and as such led to the ineqaulity between sexes and many of the society wide problems we still have today. On the other end we have Tribe by Sebastian Junger which describes how people when kidnapped by Native Americans actually did NOT want to come back to ‘western’ society since Native ameerican society was much more egalitarian, divorce was allowed, etc. Again a disclaimer that Tribe is also on my reading list, I have listened to an interview with the author wher ehe discussed many of the themes in his book.

You do bring an importnat point (two actually) that it is “pretty easy to stay healthy when you are constantly chasing that days worth of food” the scientific term for that is evolutionary pressure – this is what we evolved to do and made it through famines, black plagues and all the like. What we do today ( excessive electronic simulation coupled with sedentary lifestyles and the constant onslaught of junk food in the form of refined carbohdyrates) is going agaist our primal (genetic) blueprint (to paraphrase Mark Sisson here).

The second point “a shaman tells you everything is cool” is actually something that is getting more and more attention though there is still quite a stigma attached to it. We have a very developed prefrontal cortex on our brains where a lot of inhibitions and “rules” reside and it is proven that shamans and visions resulted from the ingestion of psychedelic substances (willingly or unknowingly – peyote, ayuasca, etc). Such substances shut down the prefrontal cortex (i am being veeerry general here) and cause extreme awareness and very powerful experiences that delete any boundaries between subconsciousness and the real world. Rumor has it ( so I am not even going to open that can of worms) that Christianity and for that matter many modern religions have similiar origins (psychedilic experiences). Dennis McKenna is among the modern proponents of the proper use of such substances. There is growing positive scientific evidence, though again there is the stigma coupled with legality that has to be overcome.

Fish and eggs while both a ‘modern product’ due to domestication/tools, are nice to have and a positive development that came form agriculture (though we have factory farming and overfishing today) though the most improtant part is that we have largely lost our connection with nature in both the phsyical and metaphysical sense. We “made it” in various parts of the world with completely different food supply/climate/etc. *without* majority of technolgy that we have today, therefore we will see a bifurcation of societies either taking the path to reconencting with nature or completely embracing technology in a biomechanical H.R. Giger (‘s art) way. The process has already started with virtual reality.

Hey, as Joe Strummer once said, the future is unwritten, we live in interesting times.=)


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