February 28, 2003 -- Which is the best performance food: A PowerBar or a banana? A Snickers bar or a bagel?
Energy drinks and energy foods are everywhere. They're gobbled by elite athletes as well as weekend warriors. Are they really necessary? No, according to an article in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Medicine & Sports.
Performance foods are convenience foods. They are easy to carry and quick to eat. There's definitely a place for them in our on-the-go society, says article co-author Lisa Bunce, RD, of Back to Basics Nutrition Consultants in Redding, Conn.
"If we could get a balanced diet, we'd have all we need and be able to ward off diseases, keep our weight under control, and exercise every day with good energy," Bunce tells WebMD. "But because we are a culture that has a difficult time getting enough variety and balance in our diets, these energy bars or sports drinks supplement our ability to eat well. So if we are not eating well but then rush to the gym to hop on the treadmill or rush out to bike-ride with the kids, these things can be helpful."
Carbohydrates fuel muscles. For elite athletes, the timing of food intake is critical. Different amounts and forms of carbohydrates are best before, during, and immediately after high-intensity play. Energy drinks and energy foods offer convenient ways to meet these needs. But Bunce notes that nobody has yet invented a supplement that provides better nutrition than common foods.
Beware Calorie Overload
For the rest of us, energy drinks and foods are just as convenient. The danger is getting too many calories. That's the biggest issue for weekend warriors, says Leslie Bonci, MPH, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"If people are using energy bars in addition to everything else they would eat -- and their energy expenditure is not that great -- then the benefit of the bar is going by the wayside," Bonci tells WebMD. "But if the energy bar is a food replacement, it can have a value."
Bonci, who serves as nutritional consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers football team as well as to the University of Pittsburgh Panthers basketball teams, says there's definitely a use for energy bars.
"There is a place for them in college sports programs," Bonci says. "High-school and college kids tend to have lots on their plates at one time -- and it's not necessarily food. Sometimes it's much easier to grab a sports bar or sports drink than pack your own lunch. Of course, some people are using too many of them or even say, 'I don't have to eat meals; I can just take a sports bar.' That is certainly not what we want people to be doing."
So does anyone really need energy bars or sports drinks?
"No. A PowerBar doesn't give more energy than a banana," Bonci says. "Some of these products are not giving the body the energy it needs. And people could eat a yogurt and get just as much benefit as from some hotsy-totsy power drink."