By Kevin Kolodziejski
This new column comes from a conviction. That even though you do own a smart phone and don’t eat 14 bagged salads and 3 pounds of Brussels sprouts every week — or go gaga over the actress oozing attitude in Nissan car commercials — you and I are alike. At least when it comes to why we ride.
Sure, you like the comradeship, competitiveness, and cal burn (same for the scenery), but when all is said and done, you ultimately cycle for the same reason I do.
You too love that on a three-hour ride you experience three weeks’ worth of emotions. Some bad, some good, and occasionally some so life-affirming you yearn to experience them again. But that feeling can be as hard to find as decent bibs that don’t cost a king’s ransom.
That’s where this column comes in, along with its idealistic mission statement: to make experiencing those life-affirming feelings a bit easier. It’s a lofty aim indeed, and why you need to know about Michael Winterdahl’s quest to kill a myth.
When the associate professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University in Denmark served as the lead author in a study using Göttingen minipigs and sugar, he didn’t really do so with an open mind. In a Medical News Today article, he admitted he hoped to prove that consuming what’s technically called sucrose and often referred to as table sugar does not create addictive behavior.
In other words, that human beings cannot — repeat, cannot — get hooked on sugar.
The study’s results, however, forced Winterdahl to change his mind.
In the paper published in the November 2019 issue of Scientific Research, Winterdahl explains, “[Our] results clearly demonstrate that sucrose affects reward mechanisms in a manner similar to that of drugs of abuse” to a degree that leads to “overconsumption and eventual obesity.”
Winterdahl and his cohorts gave seven female Göttingen minipigs access to sugar water for one hour a day for 12 days straight. They used this specific breed of pig because “their well-defined subcortical and prefrontal cortical regions enable a more direct translation to human brain function.” To conclude the experiment, the researchers gave the seven pigs and the control group of five the same brain scan they received to start the study.
“After just 12 days of sugar intake,” Winterdahl told MNT, “we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake.”
So if it is possible for human beings to become addicted to sugar, you need to consider if that’s already happened, however subtly, to you.
Sure, as a cyclist you need the stuff in one form or another no more than 90 minutes into a long-and-hard ride, or the cycling gods take offense and strap a Steinway piano onto your back. But what about the other parts of your day?
Do you start it the way so many Americans do: with a pastry, OJ, and two or three tablespoons of white delight added to your preferred form of caffeine? Have a piece of whatever sugariness your coworker baked at midmorning break? Fuel your after-work workout with a candy bar craftily camouflaged in an energy-bar wrapper?
If so, you could be ingesting 6 cups every week and around 150 pounds per year of the feels-good fool’s gold. Those numbers are not extremes, simply the American averages for total sugar consumption, according to the CDC.
While that’s obviously far too much for optimal health, it’s also too much for optimal cycling — even if you’re in such good shape that your cycling buddy bitches about your body fat percentage being lower than his mortgage rate. Yes, even if pedaling up minor inclines make the veins in your calves look like worms on the road after a driving rain, you should still limit your intake of added sugars via processed foods. After all, cycling for you is a lifestyle, not a weekend endeavor. You want to function and feel as well during Monday’s weightlifting workout and Tuesday’s and Thursday’s solo rides as you do on the long ones on the weekends.
That’s why I cut out virtually all added and most simple sugars and started chowing down on complex carbs — years before the mainstream medicos sounded the alarm about added sugars. Prior to that, I knew it was Friday without consulting a calendar. My weary body told me so. Then I stumbled upon a study originally published in the September 1981 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found while all forms of carbs restock muscle glycogen for the next day’s exercise equally well, complex carbs do a better job of keeping muscle glycogen levels high two days later.
As a result, I did something I’m forever imploring the readers of my general health and fitness column to do. I experimented. Stopped treating myself to bad stuff when I beat myself up on weekend rides. Started eating all sorts of squash. (Baked the right way, delicata tastes like a mixture of sweet potato and pumpkin.) Maybe it was nothing more than the placebo effect at its best (later studies failed to confirm these findings), but I could finally agree with that coworker who always crowed, “Thank god, it’s Friday.”
So if your legs often have nothing left when you hear TGIF, why not try two or three weeks of eating more potatoes, yams, whole grains, corn, and legumes — especially after taxing rides — and less food that contains added sugars?
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he's written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as "MuscleMag," "Ironman," "Vegetarian Times," and "Bicycle Guide." He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.