It seems like an easy choice: If you want to perform well, grab some sport food to fuel your training. Sport foods are bars, drinks, meals and gels specifically designed and packaged to provide energy and nutrients to a working body. Unfortunately, there are many foods on the market that simply pretend through advertising and marketing to be sport food, with no real nutrition value to back up those claims.
In addition, some items marketed as sport food contain very similar nutrient counts to packaged items that otherwise healthy eaters would avoid. Many brand names that sponsor or market to athletes are seen with a health halo — the appearance of being healthier than it is. When it comes to comparing sport foods with available alternatives, sport food comes out on top in some comparisons, but definitely not all.
WHEN TO EAT SPORT FOOD
A sport gel is basically pure sugar, the same as a handful of Skittles. So why not reach for the Skittles? While you will get the same sugary energy boost from the colorful candies, many gels have added sodium, B vitamins, and even branch chain amino acids added to them to replace what your body is losing during the workout. Beyond nutrition, a gel is also packaged for easy consumption while training and is easier to consume while working hard. Foods like Skittles can scatter everywhere and take more effort to chew and swallow.
Another example of the fine line between sport food and junk food is sport drinks and soft drinks. For example, a can of Coke is 140 calories of sugar and not often associated with being a performance food. Except that it’s basically the same as consuming two scoops of Skratch Labs Hydration sport drink mix or a bottle of Gatorade, two brands seen as performance enhancing. While the sugar content is similar, the sport-specific hydration options provide sodium that’s more appropriate for replenishing what is lost during sweat. As athletes can lose an entire day’s intake of sodium in one workout, replacing electrolytes is vital. Just like the difference between a 5K win might be a fraction of a second, the difference between sport food and ‘junk’ might be a few small trace minerals.
WHEN NOT TO EAT SPORT FOOD
Oatmeal is a standard pre-workout meal for many athletes as it is easy to digest and highly nutritious. However, instant packets have gained a bad reputation for being overly processed and sugary, resulting in athletes turning to sporty brands instead.
There is no need to be a food snob here! Quick oatmeal packets are great for athletes on the go, on a budget and looking for solid pre-workout energy. They provide better performance nutrition than some popular brands with sport-specific, pricey blends. For example, compared to a packet of flavored instant oatmeal, a serving of PickyBar’s oatmeal contains more fat, fewer carbohydrates, less sodium and more protein. Before workouts, your body needs more carbohydrates and sodium, with less energy coming from protein and fat.
Many performance foods are loaded with highly processed ingredients. Combat Crunch Bars are often marketed to bodybuilders as a high-protein option but contain roughly 20 highly processed ingredients. One could get the same protein content by consuming a single serving of cottage cheese, a far less processed option, which has only five whole-food ingredients.
Consuming highly processed sport foods should be reserved for cases of necessity such as travel or not having access to fresher ingredients, and whole foods should be consumed in their place when available. If you’re unable to choose whole foods, aim to opt for packaged items that are minimally processed and have few ingredients.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Some sport food goes overboard. From drink mixes that offer 400 calories a serving (the equivalent of a large pumpkin spice latte) to bars containing 50% of daily saturated fat recommendations (Think: 2 glazed donuts), sometimes too much is too much. Make sure to check the nutrition label and base your intake on what you need to support your body’s training, health and body composition goals. Just because it is sold as a sport food, doesn’t mean it is the right choice for your personal athletic needs.
In the end, it is up to you to investigate what you eat and compare that against non-sport options to consume what is best for your health, budget and performance. In some cases, swapping to a whole-food alternative gives your body a health boost, other times it will be crucial not to neglect the performance extras provided by sport food.
It is also vital to consume sport foods as they are intended. Drinking Gatorade and eating gummies on the couch is not the same as consuming them during 90-plus minutes of hard, hot training. Sport food is limited in nutrients outside of what your body needs to perform, so make sure your diet is full of nutrient-dense options to give your body what it needs to be healthy.
Originally published October 2020, updated June 2022
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