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Athletes & Sugary Treats – A Whistle-Stop Tour

Article by Liam Oliver, of British Diving.

Can sugary treats play a role in sports nutrition for youth athletes? Many athletes adopt the mindset that they train hard, so they've earn that sugary snack. At Youth Sport Nutrition we won't accept the general consensus, we need scientific evidence to prove if a 'fact' is actually a fact. 

We'll explain the truth behind sugar, and why 'in some cases' it really can be included in sports nutrition for youth athletes. 

Using refined carbohydrates to increase energy intake when training or competing can be useful for young athletes as well as adults (Meyer, O’Connor, & Shirreffs, 2007). These are generally low-fibre, processed, and/or sugary beverages like sports drinks, gels, and bars. However, concerns exist around overuse, which could increase the risk for childhood obesity and dental erosion. An active child or adolescent taking sports drinks or foods appropriately to manage energy needs aligned with training and competing are at low risk for gaining unwanted fat. The key is balance! 

Little is known about dental health, but preventative advice to youth athletes is sensible. Fermentable carbohydrate foods or drinks have potential tooth-decaying effects. Reduce the chances of this by rinsing your mouth with water, eating casein-rich foods or having chewing gum (ideally sugar-free) straight after carbohydrate consumption (Sank, 1999). Minimise dental erosion by drinking through a straw or a squeeze bottle to reduce contact time of sugars on the teeth. Quality dental hygiene (like brushing and flossing) and regular dentist check-ups are essential to maintaining oral health.

The sugar content of sports drinks and beverages found in local shops and supermarkets is worth knowing (see some fantastic resources from Guru Performance at the bottom of the page). Such drinks are appropriate for exercise over one hour, with a 6% concentration being a good rule of thumb. This means a drink contains 6 g carbohydrate per 100 ml. For example, cranberry juice might have 6.2 g/100 ml. You can also make your own sports drink, and add a pinch of sodium – aka salt, an electrolyte - to help maintain chemical balance in your body. There’s a great example from British Swimming below.

Recipe for homemade sports drink, source British Swimming.

Image source, British Swimming.

During hard exercise, carbohydrate use as a fuel may be as great as 1.0 – 1.5 g/kg/hour in adolescents. So, if you weigh 45 kg, you might use around 45 g carbohydrate or more as fuel every hour. There seems to be a greater reliance on blood glucose only at higher exercise intensities, which can lead to a gradual decrease in blood sugar levels. Glucose is a carbohydrate we use for energy. Riddell et al. (2000) found that adding glucose during exercise spared the use of stored glycogen in boys (from 68% to 59% of total energy use). The glucose you drink becomes readily available for use in the muscle during exercise, and so the participants saved the energy they had stored, which is helpful as we can use this later in exercise.

Remember, exercise is no excuse for carbohydrate-loading and/or going overboard. If you are a young athlete, this kind of loading is unnecessary and hence not recommended. Such strategies apply to adult endurance athletes like marathoners. The principle of periodising carbohydrate intake seems sensible and applicable in most cases. There’s a misconception that sugar is highly addictive, but no association appears in human studies (Benton, 2010). If you have a craving, don’t completely deprive yourself of a food and potentially drop to a bad mood and maybe binge eat later (Clark, 2011). Learning to be mindful, and to have treats in moderation, is a great skill to work on.

With Halloween having just passed, and bonfire night approaching, it’s perfectly fine to get into the spirit but it is wise to be mindful of sugars. A little off-topic, but pumpkin is a great source of beta-carotene and fibre. Why not make a soup or roast it? Happy holidays!


Image source, Guru Performance.


  • Meyer, F., O'Connor, H., & Shirreffs, S., M, (2007) Nutrition for the young athlete, Journal of Sports Sciences, 25:S1, S73-S82, doi: 10.1080/02640410701607338
  • Benton, D. (2010). The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition, 29(3), 288-303.
  • Clark, N. (2011). For athletes with food cravings and sugar addictions, employ skill power, not will power. (Food/The Athlete's Kitchen). American Fitness, 29(6), 62.
  • Sank, L. (1999). Dental nutrition. Nutrition Issues Abstracts


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