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Sports Foods: Expensive Convenience or Necessity?

Active Child's Nutritional Needs Can Be Met With Healthy Diet

To look at all the ads for sports drinks, energy bars, electrolyte replacers, energy drinks, and sports candies, you'd think these engineered products are a necessary part of a sports diet, particularly if your child is participating in 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 and their parents are needlessly wasting a lot of money misusing them. Here's how you, as parents of athletes,  you can become informed consumers so you can wisely spend your hard-earned money.

Pre-exercise energy

While fueling before sports with a PowerBar and Gatorade ($2-$3) is one way for your child to energize his workout, he could get the same 300 calories by eating a banana and a yogurt and drinking some water ($1) or from pretzels, raisins and water (50¢). Any of these choices are carbohydrate-rich and will offer the fuel his muscles need for a stellar workout.

The best pre-exercise snacks digest easily, settle well in your child's stomach, and do not "talk back." Standard supermarket foods can do that as well as engineered foods. Have your child experiment to determine what settles best in her body.

Energy Drinks

There's little doubt that Red Bull and other energy drinks are popular. For athletes, energy drinks are the source of enough sugar and caffeine to give them a quick energy boost. The problem is, one quick fix will not compensate for missed meals. That is, if your child sleeps through or skips breakfast and barely eats lunch, having a Red Bull as an energizer before sports will unlikely compensate for the previous inadequate food intake. If your child has time to play sports, he 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 a workout. Here's how the options compare:

 Sodium (mg)
20 oz. Coca-Cola
  60  $1.59
8 oz. Red Bull  80  $2.19
1 tablet No-doz
 200  $.33
16 oz. Starbuck's Coffee
 300  $1.94

Replacing sodium

Many athletes believe the sodium in sports drinks is essential to replace the sodium lost in sweat. Wrong. Sports drinks are actually relatively low in sodium compared to what your child consumes during meals. Sodium enhances fluid retention and helps keep your child hydrated, as opposed to plain water that goes in one end, out the other.

If your child sweats heavily, he might lose about 1,000 to 3,000 mg sodium in an hour of hard exercise. Here are options for replacing these sodium losses:

Sodium Replacement Option
 Sodium (mg)
Endurolytes (1 capsule) 40
PowerBar Electrolytes (8 oz.) 65
Gatorade (8 oz.)
Gatorade Endurance (8 oz.)
Cheese stick (1 oz.)  200
Pizza (1 slice)  500
Salt (1/4 teaspoon)
Soup (1 can chicken noodle)

As you can see, there is no need for anyone to drink a sports drink with their lunch, because the soup or cheese sandwich have far more sodium than the small amount of sodium in the sports drink. By consuming some salty food such as 8 ounces of chicken broth before exercising in the heat, your child can get a hefty dose of sodium into his body before hr even startd to exercise. This has been shown to enhance endurance.1


One triathlete reported using electrolyte replacers throughout the day. He then admitted he didn't even know what electrolytes were. I explained they are electrically charged particles, more commonly known as sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Standard foods abound with electrolytes, more so than engineered sports foods.

Replacements Sodium
 Magnesium Potassium
Endurolytes (1 capsule)
 40  50 25
Nuun (1 tab)
 360  12 25  100
PBJ & milk  600  300 130
Pizza (1 slice)
 650  200 30  220

Vitamin Water and vitamin-enriched sports foods

Many engineered foods tout they are enriched with B-vitamins "for energy". Yes, B-vitamins are needed to convert food into energy, but they are not sources of energy. Few athletes realize the body has a supply of vitamins stored in the liver, so your child is unlikely to become deficient during exercise.

Athletes, who eat far more food-hence more vitamins-than sedentary folks, have the opportunity to consume abundant vitamins. A big bowl of Wheaties offers 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for B-vitamins. (Most cereals, breads, pastas and other grain foods are enriched with B-vitamins unless they are "all natural".) Eight ounces of orange juice offers 100% of the DV for Vitamin C. In contrast, 8 ounces of Energy Tropical Citrus Vitamin Water offers only 40% of the DV for C.

Sports Candy

I groaned when one runner told me she ate Sports Beans ($1/100-calorie packet) for her afternoon snack. Like sports drinks, sports beans are designed to be taken during exercise. Regular jellybeans would be a far less expensive snack! She unlikely even needed extra sodium, given the fact that she ran for only an hour. Raisins, dried pineapple, or grapes would make a healthier snack option.


Not everyone uses sports foods to enhance their performance. Research on a simulated 3-day adventure race suggests otherwise.2 When the racers were given a buffet of fueling options during this event, 86% of their calories came from supermarket foods (candy, pizza, sandwiches, soft drinks, coffee, bananas, etc.) as opposed to only 14% from engineered sports foods (sports drinks, gels, energy bars, protein bars). They reported standard foods tasted better and were more palatable. Do you want the same for your sports-active child?

Created April 1, 2010

© Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and best-selling author.  She counsels active people in her practice at Healthworks, a fitness center in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Her new book, Food Guide for Soccer: Tips & Recipes from the Pros and other books, including her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and cyclists are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com and www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.


1. Sims, ST, van Vliet L, Cotter J, Rehrer N. 2007. Sodium loading aids fluid balance and reduces physiological strain of trained men exercising in the heat. Med Sci Sports Exerc 39(1):123-130.

2. Zimberg IZ, Crispim CA, Juzwiak CR at al. 2008. Nutritional intake during a simulated adventure race. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 18(2):152-68



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