"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, March 10, 2014

In Defense of Sugar

As I see it, I have two choices: either delete the links to friends of mine that I think are giving bad advice about diet or spend thousands of hours debating a subject I don't want to debate. It's a no-win situation.

In 1975, Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon while subsisting entirely on junk food. How much better would he have done with a better diet? In my opinion, nothing would have changed; diet is at best a neutral factor - nothing you eat will make you faster, but deficiencies will harm you. If you eat garbage, you have to eat a lot of it to get all the nutrients you need, but if you also burn off all those extra calories (say, by training to run a world-class marathon), there's no difference between "eating clean" and eating what most people would consider a bad diet. Rodgers DID change his diet a few years later, when he was no longer racing as well and was desperate to make any change that might help. It made no difference.

I ran my best races in the 1980's on a diet of pizza and Coke (plus enough healthy food to cover the bases). Today, I eat essentially as the USDA recommends. But certainly no one with any knowledge would eat sugar today, right? Pam Smith just set a world record for running 100 miles; in the last 10 hours she consumed nothing but orange soda (her everyday diet appears to be quite healthy, by almost anyone's standards).[quoted here]

The World Health Organization has recently recommended that people cut down the amount of sugar in their diets from a maximum of 10% of calories to 5%. Almost no one's read the report (here), but have read press reports that came from it that "sugar is bad." On Facebook, where I've seen many comments from otherwise educated people (many physicians among them), the comments tend to be: "sugar is poison," "sugar will kill you," "sugar causes Alzheimer's," "I stopped eating sugar and my [name of a problem, any problem] went away." Excess sugar in the diet is a real problem, but sugar itself is not. The very people who are commenting about how terrible sugar is consume it when exercising. The ubiquitous gels that people gulp, along with sports drinks, are largely maltodextrin, a trisaccharide sugar that doesn't have to be listed as a sugar because it's been declared a starch (as tomatoes have been declared a vegetable), though all its properties are those of a simple sugar, with a glycemic index of 150 (table sugar is only 100).

Zach Bitter, who also set a world record at 100 miles at the same race as Smith, has become the most outspoken advocate for a very high fat, low carbohydrate ketogenic diet. It obviously works for him. What gets overlooked is that he trains hard - and a lot - and it is this, not his diet, that got him his world record. I believe that with the same training and a different diet, he would've had the same result. It also should be pointed out what he eats during races (taken from his blog in December, plus the Vespa website):

  • Vespa Ultra Concentrate (4)
    • Honey
    • Royal jelly (240mg)
    • Citric acid
    • Bee propolis (120mg)
    • Wasp extract (175mg)
    • Ascorbic acid
  • Vespa Junior (4)
    • Filtered water
    • Orange juice
    • Honey
    • Royal jelly (170mg)
    • Bee propolis (90mg)
    • Wasp extract (70mg)
  • Banana chips
  • Potato chips
  • Mountain Dew
  • Gatorade
  • M&M’s

    That's nearly 100% carbohydrates and about 95% of that is sugar.

The recommendation from the WHO is to reduce added sugar. It is not the sugar that's the problem, however. The problem is that added sugar reduces the relative amounts of other nutrients. 170 calories from 12 oz. of Bitter's Mountain Dew or Smith's orange soda is 170 calories that lacks vitamins, minerals, amino acids and anything else one might need. A person eating a 2000 calorie diet cannot have that soda without going over 5% of their daily calories. That same person, also running 10 miles or more per day, can.


Robyn said...

Steve, thanks for the thoughtful response. Would it be fair to summarize your argument as follows?

1. Several people are able to run winning/record setting marathons/ultras while eating junk food, so diet doesn't matter; and

2. Even devotees of low carb/high protein + fat diets eat sugar while running, so diet doesn't matter.

On point (1): Yes, there are some very talented folks out there who can win marathons while eating pizza and Cheetos, including Young Steve Quick. You guys have a gift. As a back of the pack runner, I wish I could run like you do (or did). But you can't seriously argue that pizza and Cheetos is *superior* to clean-diet-of-your-choice. The best you can say is that it could be noninferior. On the other hand, there are gifted endurance athletes who have seen an objective and subjective improvement in their performance which *at least coincides* with adopting clean-diet-of-your-choice. See Zach (again), Olga, Alicia, Devon Yanko, Emily at sweatonceaday.com, etc.

Point (2): I think there's a very important distinction you fail to draw here between *everyday* food and *race day* food. What you eat to fuel a prolonged, maximum effort on race day probably *should* be very different from what you eat on an ordinary day, even a day when you're training. Nobody eats maltodextrin gels as a part of their regular diet, but as easily digested, rapidly absorbed (and burned) fuel on a long run, they're an excellent fuel. You're not really suggesting that orange soda would be a good exclusive choice for everyday consumption, are you?

I suggest a more nuanced argument: That sugar is not always bad, but in appropriate doses and at appropriate times can be an excellent fuel. But during times when you're not running for hours, exogenously added, refined sugars are best kept out of the diet.

sea legs girl said...

Fully agre with Robyn's point number 2. Sugar is essential when racing long races. There is great evidence for that, we have all experienced it and I make that clear in my blog post. There is a difference between what is optimal when racing and what is optimal when couch sitting.

SteveQ said...

1) Diet doesn't matter AS A FACTOR of performance, as long as basic nutritional needs are met. Each of the people you mention were improving before the switch of diet (except perhaps Olga), so the fact that they continue to improve means nothing.

2) I was referring to the typical comments to reports about sugar intake, where people said sugar was categorically bad.

SteveQ said...

As for consuming maltodextrin on a regular daily basis, people are consuming gels and drinking sports drinks during their training runs, every single day ("Don't do anything on race day you don't do in training.")

PiccolaPineCone said...

if the furnace is hot enough anything will burn.
(from once a runner)

Alicia Hudelson said...

Wait, Robyn, did you mean me Alicia? Just for the record, I didn't switch diets. I pretty much agree with Steve about diet being a neutral factor except that deficiencies (including of carbs) will hurt you.

But I also agree with Robyn that raceday food has nothing to do with everyday food and should probably be left out of the discussion. Even eating gels in training means they're, what, 5 percent of your total caloric intake?

Fast Bastard - World's Fastest Hematologist said...

Steve, all good stuff. I agree, if not 100%, then very close to 100%. It's not en vogue to say that diet is unimportant, but I'm glad someone came out and said it.

At the end of the day, a calorie is a calorie, and as long as we burn them all, I think the type of calorie is of less importance.

Still, I have read some of Robyn's blog and obviously witnessed SLG's diet. There is some thought-provoking points, and I think most people (especially male runners who almost all could benefit from some weights loss) would do well to cut out sources of calorie-dense carbs. I know I should.

By the way, I can't believe Zach Bitter takes Vespa. When someone mentions Vespa, it's hard not to smirk a little. Vespa is made of proteins that would never, ever survive uptake through the human GI tract. We can take up nothing longer than a 3-4 amino acid oligopeptides, and still they claim that their proteins can be taken by mouth. Next they will be selling oral insulin! It baffles me that no one calls them on that. Also, Vespa protects from "hemoglobin fatigue", which sounds great, but is a term that doesn't exist.

Fast Bastard - World's Fastest Hematologist said...

PPC, I had heard that furnace quote many times, but didn't realize it was from Once a Runner.

"The lean wolf leads the pack" is another Once a Runner classic.

Robyn said...

Whoops, Alicia, sorry about the diet error. I don't know how I got your name mixed in there. Thanks for the correction.

Okay, so if any non-deficient diet should work as well as any other, we would predict that runners should be able to switch from a "clean eating" diet to pizza and Cheetos, with no decline in performance. In fact, we should probably see a pretty large numbers of them doing so, since pizza-n-Cheetos is delicious, convenient, and cheap, right?


Can you identify any runners who went from a "more clean" to a "less clean" diet (adding back in processed food, exogenous sugar, gluten, artificial colors and flavors, dairy, etc) and continued to maintain their performance?

Alicia Hudelson said...

Robyn, I think the problem with that idea is that other than college-ish age guys and Rasmus, most runners don't really WANT to eat the pizza-n-Cheerios diet, whether that's because an overdose of junk food doesn't even taste particularly good or because they're thinking about their long-term health. So it would be very rare for anyone to go from "more clean" to "less clean", for reasons other than the person being worried about a decline in performance. The only example I can think of where that might happen on a large scale is when high school cross country runners go to college and leave their parents' nutritious meals behind for ramen and pizza. They probably maintain their running just fine, but that's kind of a meaningless observation since they're also probably doing more of it and getting more coaching on a college team compared to a high school team.

Olga King said...

Yikes, I am surprised (honored?) to end up in the list, but let me say a few words (gotta run, will be short). I eat clean because a) I grew up eating clean (for the most part) due to absence of "bad" food in Soviet Union 40 years ago, and it's just the way I am used to, b) I have really bad stomach distress that I monitor with a very narrow food choices, c) for me (personally) that helps loosing excess of fat, what does lead to be lighter and a bit faster, d) I had good success prior turning to a (more extreme) clean diet, but with aging and early menopause I had to be much more careful on the weight issue (see c.), e) I eat sugar during races and not going to ever try to avoid it. What else? Mike Morton was a big advocate of metabolic diet, he was awesome. I haven't heard from his this year yet. So is Joe Uhan. My point is, I wonder how long it can last? My biggest point though - we EACH have to choose what is best for us. Remember fruit guy? He was fast (2 of them, actually). Gone now, but could be number of reasons. Know Catra? Not the fastest case, but a craziest for sure - become a fruitarian a year ago, gotten stronger and faster - go figure (was vegan for 20 years). That's extreme, but works for her. Devon cleaned diet - for her health reasons, and overall, once a body gotten healthier, her racing gotten better. I think this is what we might want to look into instead of eating less carbs for racing in the first place. And again, I tried to bring across, eating no white flour/grains/simple sugar does not mean limited carbs, means different (limited) carb choices. By the way, I am a total fat freak, I don't do high fat. I eat 1/22 avocado, 2 tbsp olive oil for salad, and whatever fat comes with my meat portion, so what is "high fat"? I know a local guy Steve Moore, his wife is a nutritionist and I assume he is generally eating well when at home, but he eats burgers (with buns) and also drinks beer like there is no tomorrow (daily?) - pretty high carbs. Often before (and during) races. Wish you could see him race, animal. Where am I going with it? What works for some may not work for others. Ea healthy, limit packaged stuff - because it makes you feel better overall. Have fun with food from time to time. Racing is not a life line. Alicia doesn't need to limit pizza - the girl is skinny and light on her feet like I'll never be. Fiddle with things and find out what works for you. I can only offer what worked for me.
p.s. Steve, no reason to delete those who have a different opinion. Why? Tracey is very passionate, and loves to dig into things, I (we all) benefit greatly from discussions she starts. We learn things and experiment. I am passionate about being healthy in general, as someone who had other unhealthy issues, and had seen stuff, and also as a medical professional (if former) who went to Med School for the heart calling. What we talk about is more to ring the bell than change the world in one swoop.

Fast Bastard - World's Fastest Hematologist said...

Um, hello Hudelson. I think the much-maligned Rasmus prefers Cheetos and pizza over Cheerios and pizza.

Alicia Hudelson said...

Ha, did I really write Cheerios? Oops. Cheetos. They are so disgusting that apparently I couldn't even bring myself to type it.

I was hoping you'd laugh, though. I really do think your diet is hilariously kid-like. Which just makes it all the more surprising that you can cook so well!

And Olga, (1) that was interesting, and (2) I actually have seen Steve race. He won the Superior 100, my formerly-local 100. He looked super fit; the burgers and beers definitely don't show.

Steve, if you haven't apologized to SLG yet, you should get on that.

Olga King said...

What happens when writing a comment in the dark before coffee is consumed. 1/2 avocado (not 1/22). Also, read all comments and say Robyn's first made it straight into the eye. What are we arguing? That we should all eat junk food and hope we run better? Or that some folks are able to eat SAD and still thrive on their talent and burn the furnace etc? I think the underlining is something SLG talked about as well as FB: less weight allows you to benefit in being faster - up to a certain point. How you get to "less weight" is personal. That is concerning performance. Then there is health problems: GI, allergies, joint inflammation...Those are also personal and tending to them helps said performance as well. And last: sometimes "crappy" (non-nutritional) food tastes awesome (cookies, pizza, McD...even Cheetos?) - after all, scientists were hired to make it appeal to our basic receptors (fat, salt, sugar), but TOO much of that makes all of us, even die-hard "eat whatever" people feel crappy. Kind of like drinking - a glass of wine, fine, a bottle and half - somebody shoot me.

SteveQ said...

I see from my emails that there's something on Facebook related to this where I'm mentioned; I gave up Facebook for Lent, so I won't know what it is until Sunday.

Pam- World Record Holding Hematologist* said...

Steve- My thinking is right in line with yours. I do think American in general eat too much processed crap and would be healthier if they cut down, but I agree that sugar (or even gluten - gasp!) are not in and of themselves evil toxins that will derail our health in even the smallest quantities (excluding celiacs/gluten intolerance, of course). I did overhaul my diet last year, but I never aimed to be low carb and if you read post-WS interviews, I always pointed out that I still eat my desserts when I want them. I can't think of the last "regular" day that I had a soda, but I had no problem drinking more than 3L of it as Desert Solstice. No matter how good you get at burning fat, sugar is still a more efficient fuel source!

*I am competitive and insecure so I wanted to keep up with the other hematologists on this page. ;)

Robyn said...

Yikes! I'll let you speedy hematologists duke it out. I'm happy to be an underachieving pathologist.

Pam said...

You are a pathogist!?! Awesome- me too! (Boarded in heme also, specialize in heme path). We both know there are no underachievers in pathology!

Fast Bastard - World's Fastest Hematologist said...

Pam Smith :)

We went through this at the last Fast Hematologist World Meeting in Bern. Hematopathologists cannot race in the hematologist division. Insecurity was the main driver behind this decision.

However, if we - for the sake of the argument, because we won't - included pathologists and we were to set up a hematologist/hematopathologist run-off, the following would have to apply:

1. The hematologist would decide the distance (aka a very short race)

2. It would have to be live-cast on iRunfar. After all, this would be the hematologist's 15 minutes of fame.

3. It would have to be sponsored by Vespa, and after the race we would have a roundtable discussion on hemoglobin fatigue.

Also, in any joined hematology/pathology division, Robyn would be a safe bet to chick me in "best abs". Not that such a division exists, mind you.

Wow... said...

At first I thought this post was a joke. But anyway... I see a bunch of false info here. Listen to the interview with Zach on Endurance Planet. He explains his strategic use of carbs. Note that he eats "less" per hour in races, because he is fat adapted. And he mentions that of all those foods/drinks you listed the majority of his calories came from the banana chips, which are cooked in coconut oil making them higher in fat then carb. So your estimate of 95% or higher is likely off.