Whether you’re just trying to get into shape or you’re training for an athletic event, your health is crucial to achieving your goals. Our bodies allow us to do remarkable things — but artificial foods and harmful supplements can derail our progress.
Any moderate to intense physical activity increases your need for glucose, which your muscle cells convert into ATP for energy. As you may know, aerobic exercise can draw upon glucose reserves in adipose tissue aka fat. Anaerobic exercise can only use glucose or glycogen and is much less efficient. Either way, your muscles use ATP as fuel. They contract when potassium and sodium ions swap places on either side of muscle cell membranes.
So, exercise requires a sufficient supply of glucose (typically via carbohydrates), protein, potassium, and sodium. Countless food manufacturers have developed products packed full of these nutrients, from electrolyte drinks to energy bars.
The problem is that these ostensibly healthy snacks may be counteracting your health journey. While you may get a temporary boost in glucose or potassium, you could also be consuming some not-so-healthy additives and sweeteners.
What’s In Your Workout Snack?
Many workout drinks, such as protein shakes and smoothies, hide some harmful sweeteners among those healthy ingredients. Watch out for refined sugars and high-fructose corn syrup, which not only cause a sugar crash but can also disrupt your liver and gut bacteria.
That’s also true for protein bars, which are heavily marketed as both weight-loss solutions and muscle-building snacks. To make these palatable, food processors will often add lots of sugar. Some of them may as well be chocolate bars!
And remember, your body stores any excess calories in adipose tissue, no matter the source. So if your workout doesn’t burn a lot of calories, that protein bar will be converted into fat rather than fueling your exercise.
If you’re vegan or concerned about the dairy industry, note that many protein shakes and bars use whey protein, which is a byproduct of cheese production. It’s worth considering the carbon footprint of the snack as well as its ethical implications.
But among the biggest issues with these workout shakes and bars is that they are heavily processed and preserved. Many contain artificial sweeteners, dyes, and additives such as propylene glycol, a neurological and cardiovascular toxin , and BHT, which has been linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer . Others use palm oil, the production of which has serious environmental impacts .
The so-called sports nutrition industry is worth $40 billion globally . Many processed-food giants such as Kellog’s are getting into the game, marketing high-protein snack bars and other workout fuel. Don’t be fooled by their claims of weight loss or better workouts. More often than not, the high sugar content can zap your energy during exercise and leave you with toxins and excess calories.
When Hydration Gets Unhealthy
As mentioned above, sodium and potassium are vital for muscle contraction. That’s why sports drinks companies have pushed electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade. These beverages are essentially water with extra sodium and potassium. Sadly, they also come with extra sugar that could counteract their benefits.
It’s true that you lose sodium when you sweat, and depleted potassium can impact your workout. You may experience cramps, fatigue, and thirst. However, plain old H2O is usually sufficient to replenish fluids. As long as you’re eating a healthy diet, your sodium and potassium levels won’t drop to dangerous levels. The exception is when you’re exercising for a long time or in hot weather. In those cases, electrolyte drinks can be helpful.
Just keep an eye out for extra sugars and additives that could make your beverage unhealthy. Opt for unsweetened or low-calorie options.
Unfortunately, it’s not only what’s in the drink but also how it’s packaged.
Watch Out for Convenience Packaging
Most snack foods and beverages, especially those catered to fitness, are packaged in disposable plastic. These wrappers often contain bisphenol-A, PFAS, and PFCs. These chemicals have been linked to various negative health effects.
BPA, used in many single-use beverage containers, has been linked to endocrine disruption, impaired immunity, reproductive defects, and cancer . While some U.S. states have restricted BPA plastics, many manufacturers still use them. BPA may be used to harden the plastic bottle or line the bottle cap (even on glass beverage containers).
Bottle caps may also contain phthalates , which have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues.
Many single-use plastic bottles are made of PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate. PET mimics estrogen and leaches the heavy metal alimony, which has been linked to metabolic and carcinogenic effects.
Plastic containers are often fluorinated to prevent discoloration and protect their contents from spoilage. Unfortunately, this process creates per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) aka the “forever” chemical. These toxins accumulate in the body and contribute to everything from organ damage to high cholesterol to endocrine disruption to cancer.
And let’s not forget those protein bars. They are typically packaged in a wrapper made from polypropylene and aluminum . In addition to the potential health effects , these materials are neither recyclable nor made from recyclable materials. With the volume of snack bars being sold and consumed, these wrappers end up exacerbating our landfill waste.
A Better Way to Fuel Your Workout
As with your nutrition in general, the best course of action is to minimize your consumption of processed, packaged foods. Before you exercise, drink plenty of filtered water from a glass container. Consume complex carbs and lean proteins. Skip the sugary snacks, shakes, and electrolyte drinks. Often, it’s better to snack on a banana to raise your potassium than to chug a Gatorade.
If you must have a protein bar or sports drink, look for brands that avoid additives, dyes, fillers, and extra sweeteners. Choose products packaged in clear BPA-free plastic or glass — no foil-lined wrappers. And remember to check the calories!
Whole foods are a healthier, lower-risk way to nourish your body for your workout — and throughout your day. One of the simplest ways to minimize your toxin exposure and protect your health is to skip the convenience snacks and fitness marketing. Remember, many of the world’s top athletes power their performance with real food and fresh water. You can, too!
This article is inspired by an interview with Alpine ski racer and Team USA Olympian Tricia Mangan.