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Robert Cade, the physician in Florida who with three colleagues invented Gatorade in 1965, quickly vomited the first time he tasted his own concoction. About 30 years later, Canadian marathon runner Brian Maxwell and his friends debuted a thin, rectangular, hard-as-a-rock chunk called a Powerbar. The two icons of exercise hydration and nutrition reformulated, repackaged and offered in different flavors and are still hugely popular. But now they’ve got plenty of competition.

Sports drinks are a multi-billion-dollar yearly enterprise in the United States. The energy bar business should reach a $1 billion per year sales plateau in the United States within a few years, according to consumer food industry analysts. 

In powders, gels, chews, mini-waffles, candy bar lookalikes and peanut butter cup impersonators, energy foods come in all shapes and sizes. In varying verbiage, they’re often touted as “new and improved.” The products are often made to look delicious … and often fail the taste test.

How the products help or don’t help provide nutritionists plenty to discuss. Are the offerings promoted as energy products generally beneficial,  candy bars disguised as dietary wonders or sugar water masked as bonafide hydration replacement?

Barbara Lewin, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist in Naples, stresses the importance of researching different options and understanding what’s best for individuals’ needs. “It’s important to know what you’re looking for and to take the time to read the fine print,” she says.

Depending on exercise choices and weather conditions during outdoor workouts, proper solid food consumption and replenishing fluids are integral to performance and exercise recovery. The more severe the weather and the longer the workout, the more certain guidelines can mean the difference between a successful experience and a potential disaster. 

For endurance athletes, one adage has proven accurate: “Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry.” Otherwise, it’s too late.

“When it comes to hydration, most athletes don’t replace all sweat losses due to training and competition,” says Lewin. “And thirst is not a good indicator of dehydration. If you’re out in the elements for over an hour, you most likely should be hydrating with more than plain water. Look for a product that also contains electrolytes—sodium is most important, and many products will not contain adequate amounts. You should look for 250-350 milligrams of sodium per serving.”

Anne Harguth is a registered dietitian with the Mayo Clinic, the national health system with locations from Arizona to Florida. She concurs with Lewin and further succinctly stated the importance of proper nutrition before, during and after exercise.

“Many physiological and nutritional demands occur within the body during exercise,” Harguth says. “As muscles contract, the demand for oxygen, hydrogen and other key nutrients increases. The human body requires a continuous supply of energy to perform its many functions.”

Lewin, a U.S. Olympic Registry Sports Dietitian whose clients include elite amateur and professional athletes, stresses the importance of finding a proper balance of nutrients. “Carbohydrates are your main energy source for longer workouts, and can be in liquid form in your sports drink or in the form of bars and gels,” she says. “Generally speaking, liquids are best tolerated. When looking for solid food during workouts, look for products low in fiber and low in fat, as these tend to take longer to digest and can lead to GI issues.  

“Many of my clients eat what they would call a ‘clean diet’ … a plant-focused eating plan with lots of vegetables and low-sugar fruits. The problem with that is there’s very little sodium when you’re not eating processed foods or adding salt, and you could find yourself not feeling so well after a workout. Getting adequate fluids and electrolytes can make a huge difference.” 

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