The Eating Club

Banana Belches on the Brooklyn Bridge

Dear Seth,

My quads are doing quite well, thanks. And that’s a very good question you raise about whether or not these bars are any better than regular food, because from the outside, they look like treats. The crackly foil wrappers, the tempting names like Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch and Wild Berry. This deceptively yummy packaging makes what you find inside even more disappointing. In general they are extrusions of jaw-tiringly chewy, chemical-smelling waxiness. Likewise with sports drinks. Their names (Arctic Shatter, Frost) promise limitless refreshment. But when you drink them, your first thought is “Who put too much water in the Kool-Aid?”

So why eat this stuff? Are sports bars and drinks an improvement on a balanced diet and plain old water? Or are they just another piece of gear, like an expensive running watch that looks cool but won’t get you to the finish line any faster. According to a dietician I spoke with, the garden variety athlete has no need for either sports bars or drinks. The bars are, in general “glorified candy bars,” and if you read the label, they often list high-fructose corn syrup as their first ingredient. A few bars don’t. She singled out the Clif Bar as having a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, as well as high fiber. She also said one thing to look for was a 40-30-30 ratio of carbs to fats to proteins. Eating nutrients in this ratio is supposed to keep your blood-sugar levels in check–if you load up on sugars and carbs with no protein and fat, your blood-sugar levels spike and then drop, leaving you feeling tired.

What about the drinks? There are a few reasons why sports drinks are supposedly better than water: 1) The presence of carbs–about 6 to 8 percent–supposedly speeds your absorption of fluids. 2) The carbs will help you stay energized while you work out. 3) They taste good so you drink more than you would plain water. On the first point, if you keep sucking down the water before and during your workout, the speed of the absorption shouldn’t matter. The second point may well be valid, but the question is, would it be a noticeable difference? (We’ll see after tonight’s run.) And on the third point, I say, tastes good? Depends on whom you’re talking to. But in general the drinks do have an edge up on plain water.

One long-distance runner I spoke with said he relied on sports bars for refueling during long runs, and that the taste and texture become irrelevant when you are incredibly hungry and tired. This touches on two important points. First of all, this type of food is not meant for someone who jogs a few miles or goes to an aerobics class a few times a week. The bars are high in calories, with the Experimental and Applied Science Myoplex Plus Deluxe Precision Nutrition Bar chocolate flavor topping the list at 340 calories and 7 grams of fat–not that far from a Snickers bar. A competitive athlete needs this kind of fat and calories, but most people get more than enough in the rest of their diet. What this boils down to is if you’re training for a marathon or working out twice a day you may benefit from the bars and drinks. But for your average jogger, they’re pointless.

As for the merits of individual bars we tried before our run, they ranged from almost good (Powerbar’s Harvest was like a bad granola bar, which for a sports bar is excellent) to the truly horrible. I completely agree with your assessment of the Ironman Nutrition Bar in Cookies ‘N Crème. Here I quote from my notes, expletives deleted: “Taste 0. Texture 0 [out of a possible 5]. Disgusting. Vile. Powdery. Chalky. Distinct non-chocolate chemical smell. Gag reflex hit.” I did not spit it out, though. Which may explain the intense nausea I felt on the first leg of our run last night. Although we ate them as directed (30 minutes before exercising), they churned in my stomach with disturbing violence. It wasn’t until I released two massive belches (each smelling strongly of false banana) that I was able to settle into the run and feel halfway normal. And I trace that false banana to the Nature’s Plus Spiru-tein High Protein Energy Meal Banana Yogurt Coated Bar, which, although it ranked decently in terms of taste and texture going down, was no treat during the run.

Tomorrow, let’s get into the specifics of which drinks and bars are the best and worst.