A Real Conversation about Unreal Food

Sports drinks made a cute and pretty toast at Salty’s wedding. But is this stuff we should be putting in our bodies every day? Photo by Ken Blaze http://KenBlaze.com

How true is this statement?

“Water is not the best fluid for rehydration, either during or after exercise.22

Do you agree?

So not too long ago we talked about gels, which are a really popular “food” item for many of us athletes. At almost exactly the same time, The British Medical Journal released an article detailing its investigation of the sports drink industry.  This report then gained momentum within the press, mostly from respected Boston magazine, The Atlantic, which published a quick-and-dirty summary of the BMJ article (which is rather long, but I nonetheless found it pretty riveting as scientific journals go).  But that’s not all.  The BMJ has also investigated the sports food industry as a whole–The Forbes’ healthcare blog has an enthusiastic run-down of 7 different articles.

The gist is this: we as consumers have very likely been lied to. A lot. 

All the science that says sports drinks are better than water and gels are better than food… all that science is paid for by the companies that make these items. In America, at least, we’re so jaded by constant corporate corruption that this probably comes as no surprise, but it does nonetheless beg the question, should we be putting this stuff in our bodies?

This is what my working-from-home lunch looks like. No kidding.

For me, the article popped up in my in-box (courtesy of my dear sister) on the heels of my deciding to make a big change in my diet.  More specifically, I’m doing a modified version of Low-Fat Raw Veganism and decided to base most of my summer diet on raw fruit and vegetables (more on that another time), with a couple balanced vegan meals a day.  I have a lot of weird rules and I break them all every once in a while, but the biggest and the one I adhere to most is avoiding highly processed stuff.

I feel fantastic.

(Well not today, since last night I had an Ice-Cream and Guinness float.  It was delicious, but UGH, I feel like CRAP!  Which just goes to prove my point; I feel like crap because I surrendered to peer pressure and made an educated bad food choice!)

This is not preferred nutrition. img via Baker Bettie

So if we all know that eating overprocessed food is not good for us, why as athletes, as people who care about our bodies, are we chugging Gatorade and its ilk instead of water? And if your answer has something to do with Gatorade’s superior ability to hydrate us, I will point you directly to the BMJ article above. Once you have read it through I dare you to say with a straight face that there is any trustworthy science that proves your point.

In a post on the NPR Food Blog (it’s called Salt so it must be awesome) “Some Athletes Reject High-Tech Sports Fuel In Favor Of Real Food,” Alastair Bland cites a variety of sources including pro athletes, coaches and nurtritionists that maintain nutrition is always better if you can get it from food.  I’m inclined to agree with them.

As an advocate of fruit and veg consumption I’m inclined to ask why we even bother with the “empty” goo calories when we could just opt for a banana or some blueberries or an orange?

Oh look, the NPR article has a post-publication update at the bottom:

UPDATE: After this article was published, one of GU Energy’s lead scientists, Brent Mann, explained to us via email that food in “gel form better facilitates energy delivery to working muscles because it requires very little digestion.” He says natural solid foods can cause stomach aches and bloating if eaten during a hard workout.

I wonder what the BMJ would say about Brent Mann’s ideas? Maybe that he should quit his job at GU and do some serious, scientifically valid research on the topic? ‘Cause that’s the only way I’m going to believe him, especially since GU is nearly impossible for me to choke down without retching and feeling like I may vomit, whereas a big chunk of watermelon tastes like heaven during a run.

I am done with Gatorade and Powerade. I am done with GU and beans and blocks and gummies and all of it. I’m choosing food and water.


I submit, for your discussion, that sports drinks and gels are just not things we should be putting in our bodies.  What do you think?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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    1. To me the single greatest food I can bring on a run is a banana. Yes it’s bigger than a gel, but it is pre-packaged and it’s ergonomically designed to tuck nicely into the waistband of my shorts or into my SPI Belt. And then I can pretend I’m a cowboy at a quick-draw showdown at high noon!

      For other foods it’s not so hard to put a portion in a sandwich bag and tuck it in somewhere. I used to safety-pin my little bags of Sport Beans to my SPI Belt or my waistband. This is just as easy!

      And really, through trial-and-error I’ve figured out I can run up to 90 minutes without needing more than water. I think the ideal is to get creative, do a little experimentation, take lots of pictures…and then guest post about it on Salty Running. 😉

  1. Yeah!! I am jumping onto the whole food bandwagon. Right now I’m using almonds, chia seeds, and dates as my fuel. The only thing I can’t let go of is my nuun tablets. What do you think about those?

    1. You know, I thought about mentioning Nuun… Where sports drinks are concerned, Nuun is doing it right. They put all the electrolyte stuff in there without any sugar. Ka-bam. Deed done. No HFCS needed for my runner high, thankyouverymuch.

      Me, I still prefer plain old water. But if you absolutely must have flavor to your liquid (sometimes you just need to taste something, I get it) Nuun is probably the least-bad thing you can put in your water, barring a little lemon or lime juice (yum).

      I have never experimented with coconut water because it looks icky. Anyone care to chime in on that?

      Fun fact: I was introduced to Nuun on the set of Premium Rush (look for it in a theater near you this fall!), where we dropped it into our water daily to survive long days in the sun during production. Once I brilliantly thought of putting a Nuun tablet into my selzer. The result? Let’s just say if you ever need to help your kid make an exploding-volcano science project, I can help you figure out how to make the lava flow!

      In general I’d say do what you like.

      1. Science of Sport was saying the electrolytes are the bogus claim in terms of sports drinks! He said the sugar is what’s necessary and the electrolytes took on greater importance when they decided to start marketing low-cal versions of the drinks because without the sugar they’re about as effective as water!!! It was on their FB page. I’ll try to find a link!

  2. I’m about half-way through the BMJ article, and I while I understand the article’s concern, I will say that for me personally, thirst is NOT a good indicator of my need for hydration. In fact, (and more generally), I have found that when my body sends me a signal that it “needs something”, I am most likely to address that need initially with food of some sort. How many of us have felt like if we only ate a little, our blood sugar would rise and our energy level would return..?

    I have personally found that truly listening to your body is the real key…and very difficult to get right. If one were to err, I would suggest that one err on the side of simply assuming that the first thing you might need is the intake of fluid. I have found that a surprising percentage of the time, a good drink when I think I’m hungry will satisfy me; also, a good drink will often energize me (even if there were no calories or chemicals of any kind in the drink, which by extension means that it could not possibly have caused a rise in my blood sugar level).

    Barring that, it is often the case that what I need is neither food nor fluid, but simply rest. Yet even during these times, the urge to eat or drink something so I can “regain my energy level”, or “just keep going” is very natural (and many times, wrong).

    The use of something like GU doesn’t necessarily make sense from a formulation point of view, although I’ve proven at least for myself that ingesting something that is simple to digest and light on the stomach is much preferable to something that requires more digestion during exercise. The thing that makes it helpful is the portability of the product. Sure, four bananas would provide many of the same benefits and calorie load of 4 GUs, but carrying four bananas in your waist-pack while doing a long run, and carrying four GUs are two completely different things.

    Just my opinion…could be wrong. YMMV 🙂

    1. Blech, I think fruit and little sammiches and snax are a LOT easier to digest than GU! Just my opinion! 🙂

      It’s worth mentioning though that I’ve been injured and benched since my whole-food revolution. It’ll be interesting to see how things change when I go back to long runs!

  3. No, you don’t need to eat carbs on the run, but if you don’t you’ll likely slow down more in the later stages of a long race (more than 90 minutes). Gels are much easier to eat than bananas or potatoes, so I’ll keep eating them.

  4. I did not read the BMJ article (way too long while at work), but it seems the premise of their study is that Gatorade and Gels are not necessary for purposes of HYDRATION and that good ole water is sufficient. They also key in that sports drinks have become so mainstream, they may be contributing to obesity. These observations are no doubt true.

    However, the article doesn’t really get into the benefits Gatorade and Gels do provide to athletes which you cannot get from water alone: calories (energy), carbohydrates and electrolytes. Yet, those are the benefits I think the companies market to athletes – not simple hydration.

    That said, I just ordered new gels the other day and opted for a more organic choice – Stingers. I haven’t tried them yet, but I am hoping they are a better option.

    To answer your question, yes I think there is a place for gels and sports drinks and will continue to use them. While whole foods are great, there is no way I could stomach bananas/etc. while racing.

  5. Personally, I once stuffed my shorts pockets with almonds and dried cranberries during a long run because I was out of “proper” (read: processed/marketed) fuel. I carried a bottle of water with me to drink after each mouthful, because almonds aren’t the easiest thing to chew and choke down without some liquid – not while you’re running, at least. I felt great! I rely pretty heavily on peanut butter and/or honey for pre- and during- fueling options a lot of the time.

    That being said, during my last half-marathon I ate some of those powerbar chews along the way, and I did pretty darn well, if I do say so myself. No GI distress, no bonk, and a 22 minute PR. I’m not saying this is the way to do it, it could very well just have been one of those awesome days when you happen to be at your running best, but it certainly didn’t seem to have any negative effects. Plus, they’re pretty much just candy, so it felt like a treat 🙂

  6. THANK YOU for posting this!!! We have been blinded by corporations and the FDA about what truly is healthy for you and what is bad for you (not just fast food, it’s more like 90% of what you see in grocery stores.) Anyway, my last marathon training over the summer I tried all-natrual fruit chews, protein bars, chia tea, and Naked fruit smoothie to get me through my long runs. I used to have problems with feeling nauseous at 16+ miles. I really like the fruit smoothie, and it’s easily digested and turns into energy quickly. I’m still testing out the protein bars because I’ll get a stomach cramp soon after, but I think it’s helped with the nausea to keep my stomach full.