Carbohydrates vs. Sugars: What's the Difference?

Carbohydrates vs. Sugars: What's the Difference?

Most athletes know that during training, getting optimal fuel is crucial to optimal performance. When you eat junk, your body will perform like junk. During intense athletic training, your body needs to push hard and adapt to more intense routines - so, what's an athlete to do?

That's where food labels come in! There are a lot of specialized energy supplements marketed to athletes and athletes-in-training, and most of these use a combination of sugar and starches to energize your body. Knowing how to read labels and learning how sugar and starches work together within your body can help you fuel up efficiently before, during and after your next training session.

Typically, a label like this one is that of a complex carbohydrate - where the sugar content is low, but the total carbohydrate (and usually fiber) content is high. However, in the training world, a regular complex carb would not break down as quickly and would allow less simple sugar to be available for your muscles to use.

So, what does carbohydrate and sugar content actually mean? Let's look at food labels in a bit more detail.

Total Carbohydrates

The carbohydrate category on a food label represents the entire amount of carbohydrates in a product. Total Carbs are broken down into two sections: fiber and sugars. These are added together in addition to starches to create a total carbohydrate value.

Sugar is measured by the amount of simple carbohydrates that exist in your food, like sucrose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, lactose and glucose. There is no daily recommendation for sugar intake, but aim for less than 25g per day if you aren’t training for an athletic event.

Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate that passes through the body and doesn't get absorbed. It helps keep food particles moving through the gut and promotes healthy digestion. High fiber is good - 25g of fiber are recommended for daily intake, just make sure you're also getting lots of fluids.

Sports Performance Supplements

This is all well and good, but on performance-based supplements, the numbers don't quite add up. Usually, total carbohydrates are high, while the sugar content is low. What's the deal?

Blame it on the maltodextrin! Maltodextrin is a common food additive that is produced from a grain starch and added to sports gels and gu’s and which is not considered a simple sugar. Technically, it's considered a complex carbohydrate because it has a low sugar content, but - due to its high glycemic index of 130 (table sugar is 65), - it is absorbed rapidly in the blood stream. This makes it an excellent sports aid for endurance training, but can cause high blood sugar spikes in the average Joe.

When reading food labels, its always important to look at total fiber and ingredients, not just sugar and total carbohydrate content.

My rule of thumb for reading ingredients on labels?

If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, chances are you shouldn’t be eating it!

Hopefully this helps shed some light on healthy eating - and shows you what you should be putting back on the shelf!

Registered Dietitian, Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics


Comments
There is still a caloric value to fiber. Even though its not "absorbed" as a "traditional" carb, it needs to be fermeted inside the intestines. Those watching caloric intake should count fiber content as having a caloric value
Reply by ChrisFit
May 04, 2015
With that being said, most people should consume more fiber and most people aren't overweight due to NOT counting fiber calories :)
I recommend reading Atkins Diabetes Revolution. Doing this diet will help get diabetes under control (ADA policies are bunk, in my opinion.) Most fruits will be off limits, at least for awhile, and he can do this diet whether or not he needs to lose weight. I have put my Nutribullet away for awhile, at least until my next A1C this summer. Once I get this diabetes routed, then I look forward to using my Nutribullet again. Some of the recipes are good for blood sugar, but I would use them sparingly.
Comment by awalls
May 01, 2015
I need help! My husband is a diabetic and we thought this would be much healthier for him. In our daily nutribullet we use 50% spinach/kale and 50% whatever fruit we have on hand. Also add chia seeds and protein powder. Looking at the carbs in the fruit doesn't seem good for him or me for that matter.
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