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A whole field of sports energy products is competing for your attention. But eating right can often provide the same benefits at a lower cost.
Judging from some ads, you'd think that the right sports energy drink, gel, chew or bar is all it takes to make you faster or stronger for longer. But the truth behind these products is a bit more mundane.
No matter how they're packaged or promoted, most of these sports energy products offer the same thing as regular food—calories.
For some athletes, these convenient calories can improve performance and endurance during long events. But for the average exerciser, they won't help any more than a healthful diet, says Lawrence Armstrong, PhD, FACSM, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
Ingredients for energy
The key ingredient in most sports energy drinks, bars, chews and gels is carbohydrates.
Sports drinks mix carbohydrates with water and electrolytes. Energy bars may mix carbohydrates with protein, vitamins and/or fat. Sports gels and chews provide concentrated carbohydrates in a form that's easy to carry and eat.
Why carbohydrates? Because they're the body's primary fuel source. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into sugars. Some of these sugars stay in the blood as glucose and some are stored in the liver or muscles as glycogen.
Your body uses both glucose and glycogen, along with some fat, as fuel during exercise.
Are they necessary?
Everyone needs carbohydrates, but the average exerciser probably doesn't need to get them from sports products. You can get carbohydrates from many sources, says Dr. Armstrong. Good sources include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, and cooked dried beans and peas.
As long as you eat a healthful, balanced diet, you probably have enough glucose and glycogen in your blood and muscles for an hour of exercise.
When they can help
During activities that last longer than an hour, your body's fuel reserves can dwindle—particularly if you don't eat a pre-exercise snack, says Nancy Clark, RD, FACSM, and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. To keep your body going, you need more carbohydrates.
This is where sports drinks, gels, chews and bars may come into play. During strenuous exercise, a drink, gel, chew or bar is probably easier to eat than a bagel. While running a marathon, a bar, chew or gel is easier to carry than a banana. Sports drinks provide carbohydrates in liquid form, which can be easier on the stomach during strenuous exercise.
Can they hurt?
Whether or not you need these products, it probably won't hurt to use them if you want. But they do have drawbacks.
Cost. Like most processed or prepackaged foods, these products tend to be more expensive than "real food" alternatives, Clark says. You can get carbohydrates from an energy bar or a bagel, but the bar will probably cost several times more.
Missed nutrients. Energy bars can also be used too often to replace meals, according to Clark. If you're eating bars instead of meals too often, you could be missing out on more wholesome foods such as fruits and grains. An energy bar is better than cookies, candy or skipping meals, but it isn't necessarily better than whole foods, she says.
Extra calories. If you're exercising to lose weight, don't forget to count the calories from these products. Water and sports drinks can both help you hydrate, but water is calorie-free. A 32-ounce sports drink can add 200 calories or more to your day's intake.