Sports Foods Will Kick You When You’re Down

Processed sports foods often trigger symptoms of food intolerances precisely because they are consumed when you are most vulnerable—during exercise when you are dehydrated and when blood is pulled away from your gut and intestines to tend to other jobs.

What are sports foods? I define sports food as electrolyte and energy drinks, whey and other protein powder drinks and shakes, recovery bars, energy bars, gels, and chews—anything that is designed and marketed for use before, during, or after sport. But they also can include other packaged foods that people frequently use in such a scenario, such as granola bars or protein bars.

Thanks to good marketing and the lithe, fit athletes who serve as the products’ ambassadors, sports foods have a halo of fitness and health around them. In reality, most sports foods are not very different from a candy bar or soda in terms of their impact on the body. Most sports drinks contain 10 teaspoons of sugar, and bars, gels, and sports chews or blocks typically pack in over 20 grams of sugar.

To be clear, sports foods have a time and place, and the intention of this book is not to necessarily eliminate all sports foods from an athlete’s diet.

Clearly they can be of benefit; they are packaged for convenience, and it is difficult in some scenarios to replicate this ease of use. I too turn to regular sports foods at times.

Yet before the recent advent of sports-specific foods, athletes were able to compete and fuel successfully, and many continue to do so eating just real whole foods. This fact alone demonstrates that sports foods are not strictly necessary.

There have also been scientific studies conducted showing that foods such as raisins and bananas are equally good in terms of performance when compared to sports drinks or gels.

Do you need to use sports foods and drinks? Absolutely not. Can sports food products still be a healthy solution for someone with food intolerances? Yes.

But remember that sports foods can kick you when you’re down, especially since so many of them are packed with common irritants like fructose, gluten, lactose, artificial food chemicals, salicylates, amines, etc. Even if you might be able to eat a sports bar as an afternoon snack with no consequences, that same bar during exercise might push you over your own threshold and cause GI distress. Many of your body’s normal systems are most vulnerable during exercise, when you’re asking your body to really go for it.

Here are a few tips from The Athlete’s Fix on how to manage your sports food intake to avoid triggering any of the many symptoms of a good intolerance. For more guidance, see the book.

  • For very short events (<30 minutes), try a real sugar mouthwash (artificial sweeteners don’t work). Swish and spit. Studies show you’ll get a boost and your gut will never know what didn’t hit it. Or simply don’t eat or drink.
  • For short events (under 1 hour), the sugar mouthwash is still a good idea. Or you could simply not eat! Stick with water and only consume calories if the energy demands of your event truly require it.
  • For short to medium events (1-2 hours), fuel up 2-3 hours beforehand. This timing gives your body plenty of time to process foods normally. See The Athlete’s Fix for more energy guidance.
  • For longer events (2+ hours), chances are you’ll need to eat something. Stick with real foods, if you can. If whole foods are too bulky, sports foods might be the better energy source. Key workouts give you the opportunity to confirm which sports foods and energy drinks agree with you. Remember that all sports foods require a lot of water to digest them, even if you are tolerant of those foods.

My new book The Athlete’s Fix will help you find your problem foods—and the foods that make you feel and perform your best. The Athlete's Fix offers a sensible, three-step program to identify food intolerances, navigate popular special diets, and develop your own customized clean diet that will support better health and performance.

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Find The Athlete’s Fix in bookstores; bike, run, and tri shops; and online from VeloPress, Pip Taylor (Australian orders, please), Fishpond Australia, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and your local independent bookseller.