5 Sports Dietitian-Recommended Whole Food Swaps For Sport Fuel

by Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD
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5 Sports Dietitian-Recommended Whole Food Swaps For Sport Fuel

Sport food is designed for a reason: To provide your body with on-the-go nutrients and energy needed to prepare for, or recover from, workouts. While it serves a purpose, consuming sport food multiple times a day can have adverse effects such as reducing the desire to eat due to flavor fatigue, vitamin and mineral variety and fiber intake — plus, it can get pretty expensive.

During key training sessions and races and while traveling with limited options, many fitness-focused people often resort to sport food (gels, chews, drinks, bars). However, actively limiting ingestion of sport foods to these few situations is smart. Whenever possible, it’s ideal to consume whole foods to provide more satiety and greater nutrition value.


As a seasoned athlete and sports dietitian, here are my top five whole food picks that I happily trade my sport food for:

No shocker here. Bananas provide easily digestible carbohydrates that athletes can base their performance eating around. They are portable, versatile and provide B6, magnesium and potassium — all vital nutrients for performance. I tend to use a medium banana in place of gels since they have about the same amount of carbohydrates and calories as your average sport gel. While a sport gel might set you back $1–2 each, a banana costs a fraction of that. Another added benefit is many athletes can’t tolerate gels, resulting in GI distress and poor performance. Bananas, however, contain inulin, a prebiotic that helps promote a healthy gut and has an anti-bloating effect.
Other sport gel swaps: maple syrup, dried fruit, honey

Another classic. Peanut butter — or any nut butter — with fruit jelly on bread makes for a simple meal (or snack depending on personal needs) that provides carbs from the bread and jam and a bit of fat and protein from the nut butter. This combo gives the body some immediate energy and lasting, sustained power. Depending on the bar, it can run about half the calories of a proper PBJ, so cut your sandwich in half to even things out.

I use PBJs to replace oat bars, as they supply generally the same mix of fast and delayed energy sources and are easy to carry on long rides, hikes or stash in the car/office for on-the-go options.

If you choose bars because they are more exciting, it’s time to get more creative with your PBJ. Try different nut butters, jams and bread options to spice things up. My favorite combo is honey almond butter, jalapeno raspberry jam and a pinch of sea salt on gluten-free rye bread.
Other energy bar swaps: overnight oats, homemade bars, trail mix

Bone broths, vegetable purees and miso options can supply flavor, hydration, nutrients and salt. These satisfying, sippable liquids can help increase fluid consumption during the day as a side dish, snack or recovery drink option. Not only will soup help you hydrate, but it supplies nutrients and minerals that trump most sport drinks. Grab single-serve options when you’re on the go and keep bulk options (freezer broths, dried miso and shelf-stable vegetable varieties) stocked at home. Don’t limit yourself to sipping (or spooning) these plain, add rice, noodles, extra veggies or protein to create a full meal to replenish your active body.
Other swaps for sport drinks: coconut water, V8 juice, 100% fruit juice + salt

Ditch the pricey powder recovery drink mixes and grab a chocolate milk. You’ll satisfy those chocolatey cravings while aiding the recovery of muscles and replenishing glycogen stores. Chocolate milk has lots of data behind it to support using it as a recovery beverage due to the ratio of carbohydrates to protein being optimal. The drink is also widely available; grab a carton at your grocery store, with espresso at your local coffee shop or even at a gas station while heading home post-gym or group workout. There are also varieties that work for most individual diet needs; gluten-free, vegan, low-casein and low-lactose. For those choosing plant-based varieties, opt for varieties that have protein added to create a 3 or 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio that your body needs post hard training session. Beyond this ratio, chocolate milk also offers calcium and vitamin D to help promote bone strength and quality sleep.
Other swaps for recovery drinks: sandwiches, cottage cheese + fruit, eggs + rice

Dried dates are another perfect whole-food pick to replace sport food, specifically chews or gummies. These naturally sweet dried fruits are calorie dense; each pitted medjool date has 66 calories and 20 grams of carbohydrate, so just one can provide a burst of energy while satisfying your sweet tooth. Take them along on your next adventure to provide a nutritious swap for sugary, processed chews or gummie candy to provide quick energy to burn. This fruit also packs a big potassium punch and consuming enough of this mineral may help prevent muscle cramping. Dice and add to smoothies, porridges, granola and salads for an easy carb boost or stuff them with almond butter and roll in coconut flakes for a super satisfying energy bite.
Other swaps for energy chews: potatoes, dried fruit, fruit leather

While sport food has been created to help us get the energy boost to perform or nutrients for optimal recovery, keep in mind that there is likely a whole-food option that can be a nutritious, cost-effective replacement. Experiment with different varieties, flavors and timing with whole food just as you would with sport fuel to find what works best for your body. Your general health and performance improves by relying mostly on whole foods to fuel your performance and saving sport fuel for those intense sessions and race day efforts.

About the Author

Lori Russell, MS RD CSSD

Lori, MS RD CSSD is an accomplished sports dietitian; she holds a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Certification as a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. As a current professional road cyclist and previous elite marathoner and ultra-runner, Lori knows firsthand that food can enhance or diminish performance gains. She understands the importance of balancing a quality whole food based diet with science-backed performance nutrition and strives to share this message with others. Learn more about her @HungryForResults.


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