Power. Energy. Greatness. These are three words I would like to think describe my fitness routine. They are also three words commonly used on packaging (or in marketing campaigns) for sports drinks, energy bars, and the other packaged foods that make up the bloated "fitness junk food" industry. But if you're an everyday gym-goer, can they really boost your performance? Or are you just shelling out your cash for, well, calories? Probably the latter. "If you add these products to your diet without subtracting other foods, you're just adding back the calories you're burning during exercise," says Eve Pearson, RD, a sports nutritionist in Dallas. Discover the five fitness junk foods that could be making you fat--and their budget-friendly better-for-you alternatives.
"A sports drink is basically sugar water with a sprinkle of salt," says Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. "Only a very select group of people need the extra sugar to stay energized. The rest of us are fine with water." (Related: 4 Surprising Secrets About Bottled Water) The problem: Millions of Americans guzzle sports drinks when they don't need them, simply upping their calorie intake. "You might as well have a soda," says Clark. As for the extra sodium, Clark reminds us that there's a public health campaign aimed at getting us to reduce our intake of the white stuff. (Video: Salty Restaurant Foods to Avoid) "However, if you're exercising for more than 3 hours in the heat, a little more sodium is helpful. But you could just as easily put a pinch or two of salt on your oatmeal before you exercise to get it into your system."
While an energy bar may sound like a great pre-workout snack, a lot of them are nothing more than glorified cookies, says Clark. Many bars--especially those pegged as "meal replacements"--can pack a staggering 300-plus calories, easily negating the ones you're about to burn off on the elliptical. If you're going to reach for a bar, read the nutrition label first. The American Heart Association says women shouldn't eat more than 25 grams of added sugar per day, and men should stick to under 37. "These bars can easily have more than half that," says Pearson. Instead, opt for bars made with whole foods, like KIND or LÄRA bars--or just grab a handful of nuts. Sure, we're a little biased, but we're especially wild about the new Planters Men's Health Nut-rition nut mix, from our good pals at Men's Health magazine. One serving of this pistachio-almond-peanut combo has 6 grams of protein and just a touch of salt, making them low-sodium but totally satisfying.
5 Nutritious On-the-Go Energy Bars
If you've ever trained for a marathon, there's a good chance these products made their way into your runner's belt at one point or another. But unless you're exercising intensely for more than an hour, you should steer clear. "These are just sugar by another name," says Clark. "You could also eat jelly beans, gummy bears, Twizzlers, marshmallows--any other form of refined sugar." (Search: What is refined sugar?) Better yet, during a long run or workout, opt for a natural energy booster, like dried fruit or dates. As for the average exerciser: Bracket your regular meals and snacks around your workout for maximum energy and recovery without taking on unnecessary calories, says Pearson. For instance, eat a banana before your morning run, and refuel with a Greek yogurt or some oatmeal when you finish.
If you're slamming a massive can of Red Bull or Monster to supercharge your workout, you're not doing your physique any favors. (Related: The Truth About Energy Drinks) The "energizing" ingredient in these drinks is nothing more than sugar, mixed with caffeine (a 16-ounce can of Rockstar Energy Drink packs a staggering 62 grams of sugar). "You might as well save your money and dump a ¼ cup of sugar into a cup of coffee," says Clark. "If you feel like you need a boost to get through a tough class or training session, you probably didn't eat enough earlier in the day." Fuel up with real food--like bananas and peanut butter--before you hit the gym. Already ate and still feel like you're dragging? Sip a cup of black coffee instead.
While taking in high-quality protein after a workout can speed muscle repair, you still need to your keep your total daily calories in check. "It always comes back to calories in and calories out," says Wayne Westcott, PhD, Prevention advisory board member and fitness research director at Quincy College. "If you add these types of shakes on top of your normal diet plan without burning off the extra calories--especially if they also contain a lot of added sugars--it's likely that you'll gain some body fat along with any lean muscle you put on." But even if you need the extra protein boost, you don't have to shell out big bucks for pricey products with added sugars and sweeteners: "Milk is nature's natural protein shake," says Clark. "If you want an even bigger protein boost, simply mix some powdered milk into your milk."