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Nutritionist Extols the Virtues of Honey for Athletes

Show Me The Honey!

"Show me the honey" could very well be the mantra for athletes engaging in endurance sports.

"I recommend honey--honey should be part of a good refueling strategy," nationally renowned nutritionist and fitness expert Liz Applegate of the University of California, Davis, told beekeepers and scientists at the 31st annual Western Apicultural Society conference held recently in Healdsburg.

"I always have my athletes consume honey before and during strenuous exercise," said Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis and the nutritionist for the Oakland Raiders.

"Honey works," she said.

Applegate, a member of the UC Davis Department of Nutrition faculty, and a newly announced recipient of the 2009 UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award, explained that the body manufactures and stores glycogen primarily in the liver (glycogen is found in lower concentrations in the muscles). During strenuous exercise, the liver depletes the short-term energy storage of glycogen in about two hours. "If you don’t replenish it, it’s like a runner hitting the wall or bonking," Applegate said.

"There’s no glycogen in any food we eat," said Applegate, herself an athlete who lifts weights, runs and cycles.

Honey, a rich source of carbohydrates, "provides a quick source of energy," she said. It’s easy to carry (in packets), easy to consume (no chewing), easy to digest and is easily assimilated. Plus, it tastes good, is inexpensive and easily obtainable, she noted.

Applegate outlined a "carbohydrate feeding scheme" for prolonged endurance events, such as marathon. The marathoner should drink an eight-ounce sport drink at mile 6; consume two tablespoons of honey at mile 12; consumer apple slices and an eight-ounce sport drink at mile 17; and an eight-ounce sport drink at mile 21, for a total of 115 grams of carbohydrates.

Basically, the long-endurance athlete should drink 1/2 to 3/4 cup every 15 to 20 minutes; consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour or 100 calories every half hour, and use water, sport drink, fitness waters, energy bars, carb gels and fruit, she said.

"Honey has a positive feel. There’s a lot of potential in using honey."

However, Applegate said, there are few, if any, commercial honey-based sports drinks on the market. A few companies, such as Odwalla, sweeten their energy bars with honey. She encouraged her audience to come up with ideas and products for the athletes and others who want quick energy bursts.

"Some athletes eat rice with honey, as both are easy to digest," Applegate said.

Unlike most other sweeteners, honey contains small amounts of a wide array of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants collected from the flowers that bees visit. The list includes niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Honey is also considered an effective antimicrobial agent, used to treat minor burns and scrapes and to soothe sore throats; and as a beauty agent, according to Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and the 2008-09 president of the Western Apicultural Society.

More than 300 different kinds of honey are found worldwide. The color, flavor and fragrance are closely linked to the bees’ floral visits

Applegate, highly sought as a keynote speaker at industry, athletic and scientific meetings, serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism; is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine; and a member of the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists, a practice group of the American Dietetics Association. She also writes the popular "Fridge Wisdom" nutrition column for Runner's World magazine.

A graduate of UC Davis with two degrees, she holds a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and a doctorate in nutrition science. Her enthusiasm and informal style make her undergraduate nutrition classes the nation’s largest with enrollments exceeding 2,000 annually. She has as many as 650 in each class.