Energy Bars, Gels and Sports Drinks: Healthy Fuel or Junk Food By Another Name?

As many of you know, I am training for the ING New York City Marathon on November 4, 2008. Because I counsel clients on diet and nutrition, I am normally fairly confident on what to eat and what not to. In the past few months, however, I have been counseling a few clients who are running the marathon who use sports products and they have asked me about their usefulness in training.

Personally, I do not use bars, gels and drinks and have always felt that they were just junk food masquerading as sports nutrition products. A few weeks ago I ran the 18 mile Marathon Tune-up in 2:39 without any of the products and felt just fine. But, so many well-known athletes and trainers use sports bars, gels and drinks to re-hydrate and refuel their bodies during training and competitions and so many recommend them to their clients that I thought it perhaps was not quite so black and white!

Was I hurting my training by not using having a gel or bar during my run or a sports drink afterwards? Should I add these to my diet? Or, since many of these products are laden with sugar, should I avoid them and keep on drinking water and eating healthy pre- and post-workout snacks? Should I recommend them to my clients? And, further, are these products something I should give my young son and daughter after sports?

So, why do athletes use these products?

The reason athletes use them is because they are a quick, convenient way to replenish glycogen stores in the liver, to replace electrolyte loss of sodium, potassium and other key nutrients and, in the case of sports drinks, to re-hydrate.

Our bodies run on a steady supply of fuel during the day, and when we exercise (especially at a high- intensity level during training), we slowly deplete these glycogen stores and may develop low blood sugar, which ultimately may result in hypoglycemia. Glycogen can be depleted in one workout session or gradually over several days or weeks at a time so it is especially important to be vigilant about refueling! This is, by the way, why runners “carb load” and eat more carbohydrates in the days leading up to a big race. Multiple carbohydrate combinations are thought to enhance absorption. When glycogen is depleted, fatigue sets in and we “hit the wall.” We may feel shaky and lightheaded and not able to go a step further. Not what we want when we are training or competing!

Equally important is making sure that we are well-hydrated and replenish all of the fluids that we have lost during intense exercise. We can easily lose between 16-32 oz, and sometimes even 48 oz (1.5L), through sweat loss while we are training. Water is our body’s primary way to cool off as our body’s temperature rises. When we sweat, our body’s blood volume goes down and stress is placed on our cardiovascular system and we may suffer loss of mental concentration and become exhausted.

Hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels), where the electrolyte sodium becomes unbalanced by either too much water loss or too much sodium loss through excess sweating, has caused a few fatalities and is worth being addressed. Sports drinks do help balance sodium levels and help prevent hyponatremia. Sometimes it is hard to tell exactly how much we need but a good test is to look at your urine and make sure it is a light yellow color. If it is dark orange, then you need to drink more. And, if it is completely clear, then lay off for a while!

Experiment and see if sports bars, gels and drinks are right for you.

If you think they are and you plan to use them, it is essential to search out brands that do not include high-fructose corn syrup and are packed with energy boosting, nutrient-packed ingredients. Otherwise, you might as well be having a soft drink or candy bar with your vitamin! Or, since some are also packed with caffeine, you might as well be having a candy bar, a vitamin and a cup of coffee! If you look at the ingredients list of a product and high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose or fructose is the first and second ingredient on the list then put it down. Ingredients to look for in sports nutrition products are the electrolytes Sodium Chloride and Potassium Chloride, the amino acids L-Leucine, L-Alanine, L-Valine or L-Histidine, and L-Isoleucine and B-Vitamins.

Sports drinks are my favorite sports nutrition product because they not only replenish fluids but also provide energy for glycogen stores and sodium and other beneficial nutrients such as potassium and, in many cases, B12 and other vitamins. Ideally sports drinks should contain between 6-8% carbohydrates for optimal absorption. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking thatGatorade (or Gatorade Endurance)is a healthy option even though many races supply it and are sponsored by it. Gatorade’s top two ingredients are sucrose and, get this, high-fructose corn syrup! Gatorade Endurance, the official drink of the ING New York City Marathon, does have 200 mg of sodium per 8 oz. serving, which is wonderful for those running long distances and pushing themselves to the limit. Fueling up with high-fructose corn syrup, however, does not seem like the healthiest option to me!

Vitamin Water is marginally better because it is sweetened with cane sugar and fructose and contains important electrolytes as well as B-vitamins. It is probably not a good choice for an endurance athlete or someone running a marathon because it does not contain sodium chloride or potassium chloride but for the average runner it is fine.

If you are a real endurance athlete, you can probably get away with having all of the extra sugar and calories but, for most of us, my opinion is to make choices sweetened with natural ingredients. My absolute favorite sports drink is called Liv, which is sweetened with agave nectar and brown rice syrup and contains all the necessary electrolytes sodium and potassium. Liv comes in flavors Berry, Citrus, Orange and Lemon. This is the drink I use for myself and send to school with my son! Another good choice is Function’s Alternative Energy, which is sweetened with cane juice and contains all the important electrolytes but does have some caffeine from green tea.

There is a debate about the benefits of taking in caffeine due to the diuretic quality of caffeine. It does not seem to have much of an affect in small dosages and as always athletes need to make sure they are adequately hydrated. Some scientific evidence indicates that caffeine can improve performance by increasing mental alertness and concentration, decreasing the perception of fatigue, and by forcing the body to use fatty acids instead of glycagon stores for fuel thus delaying muscle fatigue. Because so many athletes used it to enhance performance, it was even banned in high doses by the International Olympic Committee until 2004!

Energy bars seem to be the product that not only athletes use but also weekend warriors and people at their desks all day looking for a boost tend to use. With respect to the bars, my same rules apply. Avoid bars with a high sugar content and look for bars packed with nutrients. Not to bash Power Bars (or the Power Bar Performance Bar, Pria) but the top two ingredients are cane juice syrup and fructose. Power Bar has come out with a Power Bar Endurance Bar that has all the important electrolytes (200 mg of sodium and 110 mg of potassium) and amino acids. And, Power Bar has also come out with a Power Bar Protein Plus with some key nutrients and electrolytes as well as added protein but glucose syrup and cane juice syrup are still the second and third ingredients.

Cliff Bars are a good choice for fueling during a workout or re-powering after an intense workout. Not only are they delicious but they also contain healthy ingredients such as rolled oats, flaxseeds, dates, molasses and sea salt as well as 140 mg of sodium and 250 mg of potassium. The first ingredient, however, is brown rice syrup (a better quality sugar but sugar nonetheless.) Skip the Cliff Bar high-protein Builder’s bar that has sugar as it’s second, third and fourth ingredients!

Look instead for brands that are sweetened with agave nectar such as my all-time favorite Raw Revolution bars, which are sweetened with agave nectar and contain cashews, dates, and flax seeds. My favorite flavors are the Chocolate and the Coconut. Another favorite bar of mine are Jennie’s Omega 3 Coconut Bars, which are sweetened with honey and are packed with Omega-3’s. Another favorite in my house are Greens+ Bars, which contain dates, almonds, green tea and honey and are like “salad in a bar” with Spirulina, wheat grass, and alfalfa grass! While all of these bars are high in essential vitamins and minerals, they are not high in electrolytes so may not be the best choice for an endurance athlete to use during the race ( Greens+ Bars are high in calcium and the Omega 3 bars are high in potassium.) In my opinion, though, these bars are an excellent choice for those running 6 miles or less or for those looking for an afternoon boost.

Gels have gained quite a following among athletes because they are more portable and easier to open, contain mostly carbohydrates, are more readily absorbed and provide quicker energy boosts than the bars. Gels taste like cake frosting.The ever-popular Gu Gels top two ingredients are glucose and fructose and contain caffeine for an added punch. While they do have beneficial vitamins and electrolytes that is a lot of sugar! If you like gels,Hammer Gel is a much better choice! Hammer gels are made with all-natural ingredients and are sweetened with fruit juice. A well-known Olympic trainer in Colorado Springs swears by them! Another gel brand that was recently brought to my attention by a fellow runner is Honey Stinger, which is sweetened with honey and contains all of the necessary nutrients plus all the B-vitamins important for energy.

Re-hydrating oneself and replenishing one’s electrolytes, vitamins and glycogen stores before and after training and competing is important. It is more important, though, to recognize that there are many other ways to do it! You can replenish your stores just as well drinking water, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, adding natural sea salt to your foods, eating a whole grain bagel, having a cup of yogurt and choosing foods and drinks with all-natural ingredients. During a long run such as a marathon or a triathalon, it may be essential to replenish glycogen stores or electrolytes right then and there to get through.

Whatever you choose and whatever you do, however, just read the labels, be realistic about your individual needs and make an educated choice.

1 Comment

  • ron
    July 27th, 2014 at 1:32 pm

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