Engineered Sports Foods: Convenience or Necessity?

To look at all the ads for sports drinks, energy bars, electrolyte replacers and sports candies, you'd think these engineered products are a necessary part of a sports diet, particularly if you are doing endurance exercise such as training for a marathon or a triathlon. When my clients ask for advice about how to use these products, I first assess their daily sports diet to determine if they can get—or are getting—what they want from standard foods (carbs, sodium). In most cases, they can get their needs met with a wisely chosen sports diet.

While there is a time and a place for engineered sports foods (particularly among people who train at a high intensity), many athletes needlessly waste a lot of money misusing them. The purpose of this article is to help you become an informed consumer, so you can wisely spend your hard-earned money.

Pre-Exercise Energy Bars

While fueling with a pre-workout PowerBar and Gatorade ($2-$3) is one way to energize your workout, you could less expensively consume 300 calories of banana+yogurt+water ($1) or pretzels+raisins+water (50¢). Any of these choices are carbohydrate-rich and will offer the fuel your muscles need for a stellar workout.

The best pre-exercise snacks digest easily, settle well in your stomach, and do not talk back to you. Standard supermarket foods can do that as well as engineered foods. Experiment to determine what settles best in your body.

Energy Drinks

There's little doubt that Red Bull and other energy drinks are popular, particularly among folks who use them for alcohol mixers. The 110 calories of sugar “helps the medicine go down” (for those who don't enjoy the taste of certain alcoholic beverages). The resulting problem is wide-awake drunks who think they can drive themselves home—but then get into accidents.

For athletes, energy drinks are the source of enough sugar and caffeine to give you a quick energy boost. The problem is, one quick fix will not compensate for missed meals. That is, if you sleep through breakfast and barely eat lunch, having a Red Bull for a pre-workout energizer will unlikely compensate for the previous inadequate food intake. If you can make the time to train, you can also make the time to fuel appropriately, rather than rely on a quick fix. 


A known “ergogenic aid”, caffeine enhances performance by making the effort seem easier. A pre-exercise caffeine-fix—especially if accommodated by carbs—can energize your workout. Here’s how the options compare:                                          

Option  Caffeine (mg) Cost
 Coca-Cola, 20 oz   60     $1.59 
 Red Bull, 8 oz      80      $2.19
 No-doz, 1 tablet    200        $0.33 
 Starbuck's, 16 oz     300     $1.94  

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