The Wicked Sweet Sugar Q&A


Photo courtesy Uwe Hermann

Since I first published the recipes for my chia seed energy chews and energy gels, more than a few astute readers have contacted me with the same question.

Aren’t these recipes essentially just sugar?

You’re darn right they are! And with good reason, too. But, to explain, we’ll need to venture into a bit of a biology Q&A.

Strap on your lab coats. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Okay. It’s been a while since I took Biology. Why don’t you start with the basics?

Sure, no problem. Let’s start with a discussion about why we eat in the first place.

As obvious as this probably sounds, all activities require a certain amount of energy. The more intense the activity, the more energy required to complete it.

So running a marathon requires more energy than running a 5K, which requires more energy than, say, sitting there reading this article.

We use the term calories to refer to the energy that we consume in the course of our daily activities. And, of course, these calories come predominantly through the ingestion of food. However, we can be even more specific than that.

More specific? You mean there’s more than just “eat food”?

Sure is. If you’re really trying to fuel efficiently, you need to pay attention not just to eating, but to what you’re eating.

You see, the human body functionally relies on two different substances for energy: carbohydrates and lipids – effectively sugars and fats. Although not a topic of this particular discussion, proteins can also be broken down for energy in periods of extreme duress.

Sugars, fully metabolized , provide about 4 calories per gram, where fats provide 9 calories per gram.

Wait! If fats provide more energy, why do I want to eat sugars? Why not just eat fats?

Fats are a great source of energy, but they’re much more difficult for the body to break down than sugars.

In that regard, the body is better able to make use of sugars for short-term boosts of energy than it is fats. Just think about a kid on a so-called “sugar high”. When you’re racing, rapid energy is the name of the game.

Okay. Fair enough. So what about this “glycogen” I keep hearing about? What’s the deal there?

Ah, good question! You can think of glycogen as a whole bunch of the sugar known as glucose all stuck together.

Glucose is the most easily digestible sugar so, when the body has it in abundance (like, say, during a big meal), it stores it in the liver as glycogen. Then, when the body needs fuel, the glycogen can be easily converted back into glucose and mobilized into the bloodstream.

At any given time, the body is holding on to anywhere between 800 and 2,500 calories in the form of glycogen. But, when that glycogen has all been converted back to glucose and used for energy, the body has to turn to less efficient sources to keep going.

This can lead to general fatigue, sluggishness, and even a difficulty moving. That’s the point that runners refer to as…

Hitting “The Wall”, right?

Exactly! So, if you want to avoid hitting the wall, you need to make sure your body doesn’t ever completely deplete its supply of glycogen. And the best way to do that is by consuming small doses of easily digestible carbohydrates.

Just like the sugars in energy chews and gels.

Does that make the reasoning behind the recipes clearer? What questions do you have that haven’t been answered here? Leave me some love in the comments.

  2 Responses to The Wicked Sweet Sugar Q&A
  1. Kira

    The picture of sugar cubes made me wonder…why bother with all the fancy gus and chews? Why not just take sugar cubes? Seems cheaper and easier to me.

    • Tim Woodbury

      Great question, Kira!

      The key when determining which sugars to use for fuel is understanding how they’re metabolised. Table sugar is sucrose, a complex sugar made from glucose and fructose. It’s very easily digestible, and causes a rapid rise in blood glucose levels.

      Maltose, on the other hand, is a complex sugar formed from two glucose molecules. As such, it causes a much faster rise in serum glucose levels than sucrose. The same holds true for maltodextrin – 4 or more glucose molecules joined, and the common ingredient in commercial gels.

      That’s why you’re better off with gels and chews with a maltose base compared to plain sucrose. Plus, having a prepared food allows you to also incorporate electrolytes. Does that make sense?

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