Whole Foods Best for Workouts

Only elite athletes need supplements and energy bars. The rest of us can fuel our workouts with regular whole foods.

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD

It's not an uncommon sight ... Runners at the starting line of a race guzzling down the last few drops of Ultra Fuel, unwrapping a PowerBar or carefully storing small packets of Goo energy gel in the micro pockets of their running shorts.

Novice racers and runners are looking around thinking, "This is what I should be doing. This is how I will sustain my energy and run a better race."

But is it?

According to Lisa Cooper, a registered dietitian who has worked with many athletes, food is more than something that quells hunger; it is fuel composed of nutrients essential for maintaining optimal health and top performance during an endurance event like a race.

So if bars, drinks, and gels claim to give you that, should they replace whole foods when it comes to performance?

"Whole foods have other substances in them that benefit the body," says Cooper, "I would choose a whole food."

Industry experts tend to agree.

Despite clever marketing for the myriad of purported performance foods available, whole food, such as an apple with peanut butter on it, might be a better choice.

The goal for everyone, athletes and non-athletes alike, should be to get a balanced diet, says nutritionist Philip Goglia, co-founder of Performance Fitness Concepts, a nutrition and wellness consulting company in Los Angeles. A diet rich in a healthy combination fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish or chicken would be enough to get someone through a race or a day at work.

"Supplements are just that," says Jeff Stout, exercise physiologist and co-author of five books on sports nutrition. "Supplements supplement the diet when foods don't do enough."

"I always prefer that the majority of the calories come from [whole] food," adds Stout, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.

To get energy from whole foods, it is important to be educated about what we eat and when.

What to Eat When

"Food falls into three categories," says Goglia, "protein, fat, and carbohydrate."

After you eat, nutrients are released into your bloodstream and converted to glucose, or blood sugar -- your body's energy. Energy not used right away is stored as glycogen in your liver for quick release or as fat for later use.

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for the muscles and the brain. For the best, quickest sources of energy, Goglia tells WebMD, choose single-ingredient carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, or oatmeal over multi-ingredient items like breads or muffins.

Fats and protein provide the body with a slower release of energy. Protein also works to build and repair muscles.

Before a run, then, says Goglia, "have a piece of fruit and peanut butter or oatmeal. Eat whole foods and let your body digest them. That's what it wants to do. "Then, while running, if you feel as though you've depleted your carbohydrates, then use a supplement."

If you're a body builder, or a training athlete, says Goglia, and you're using a supplement as an aid to your balanced diet for convenience, that's OK. "But absolutely don't depend on those things within any given regular civilian day."

Besides replacing depleted carbohydrates or balancing the diet with a vitamin and mineral fortified bar, a sports drink or gel might be a good choice when an athlete cannot digest whole foods, says Cooper, right before or during performance.

Stout works with athletes, strategizing what they eat before and after exercise in order to maximize training. One hour before exercise, says Stout, "a bagel is just as effective as anything on the market. It's a complex carb, so it breaks down, but not as fast."

There's Carbs, and Carbs

Not all carbohydrates are created equal, however. Some enter the bloodstream more quickly than others and they are considered to have a high glycemic index. Baked potatoes and raisins are examples. These are best eaten right before, during, or right after exercise, whereas moderate (orange juice or a sweet potato) and low (apple or pear) glycemic index carbohydrates enter the bloodstream more slowly and are best consumed in the hours before a workout.

Stout advises athletes in training to start eating whole foods four hours before an event, building their carbohydrate stores for performance.

Immediately post race, he says, a sports supplement drink is a good way to replenish what was depleted because the body absorbs it quickly.

For elite athletes, who depend on the timing of food intake for performance, energy bars and sports drinks are convenient. They provide a handy source of fuel for someone burning more than they can keep up with.