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Powering Up
Sports Bars and Gels: Crunchy, Squishy and Hip

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 1998; Page E01

It's 6 a.m. and sunny. A perfect time to squeeze in a run or a visit to the gym before you start your day.

What do you have to get going? A cup of tea? Juice? A full breakfast? Nothing?

What you do or don't eat makes a difference. Whether you're a committed cyclist, an aerobics' enthusiast or a kid on a swim team, exercise puts more and different demands on your body, so it has to be fueled.

And these days, more and more people are getting that fuel from food alternatives: sports bars and gels that over the last decade have made their way from the side aisles of organic co-ops to backpacks and gym bags all over the country.

"They're definitely gaining in popularity," says Liz Applegate, a former competitive runner, a longtime editor at Runners World and a popular nutrition consultant and lecturer at the University of California at Davis. "I see them on supermarket shelves all over the place instead of just at bike stores and health food stores."

Power Bar. Balance Bar. Tiger Sport. GU. Clif Shot. Squeezy. Stuff that can seem less appealing than astronaut grub.

Not that anybody's buying them for the taste. For bar and gel aficionados, fueling up isn't about taste -- it's about energy levels, feeling good during and after exercise and improving performance.

You've probably seen them: shiny candy bar-shaped products and small squeezable packets or tubes filled with carbohydrates and vitamins, minerals, other nutrients and flavorings. It's the very portable, measured number of carbohydrates inside them that most fans are after.

"Carbohydrate calories are the most important source of energy calories," says Kristine Clark, director of sports nutrition at Penn State's Center for Sports Medicine, where she tries to manage the diets for the school's 29 teams. "They're the primary nutrient most athletes use when training and competing."

They're the primary nutrient ordinary people need for exercise as well. "If you want to be active, have fun and feel good, the key is making sure you put in enough carbohydrates," says Jackie Berning, an assistant professor and sports nutritionist who works with the Denver Broncos, the Denver Nuggets, as well as the sports teams at the University of Colorado.

What's enough? Thirty to 60 grams of carbohydrates an hour for exercise lasting more than one hour, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Now you can certainly get your carbohydrates from half a large bagel (about 30 grams), a banana (about 27 grams), or two slices of unbuttered white toast (about 28 grams). And many of us will want to take that route, both for the taste and to avoid paying the $1 to $1.50 that bars and gels cost.

But sports bars or gels (ranging from about 25 grams to 50 grams of carbohydrates apiece) are a quick, portion-controlled way to get those carbohydrates and replenish the body's glycogen stores.

"Your muscles rely on stored carbohydrates to exercise," says Franca Alphin, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. "But once that's used up, the muscles have no more energy. . . . These things are taken to give the muscles immediate energy."

Even before science analyzed the role of carbohydrates for exercising muscles, athletes and active amateurs sensed it. "Twenty years ago, people were eating candies and soda pop," says Berning. "When my husband played baseball, he was told to drink root beer before a game -- it was supposed to make you run around the bases faster."

But just in case you're tempted to go out and wolf down energy bars or carbo-load pasta before taking a walk, remember that the body already stores carbohydrates: in the form of glucose, or blood sugar; in the liver, and in the lean muscle tissue, says Alphin.

However, unlike protein and fat, Alphin explains, the amount of carbohydrates that can be stored in the body is limited. Therefore, the longer the exercise segment, the more depleted the store of carbohydrates becomes.

Hence, the attraction of energy bars and gels, which are a convenient way of replenishing them -- usually with maltodextrin, fructose, and maltose, but also with rice syrup or fruit juice concentrates. Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, electrolytes and flavorings are part of the mix, too.

Generally the bars, which clock in at between 110 and 250 calories, also contain fiber and small amounts of fat and protein to make them taste better, as well as an array of nonessential nutrients. The gels have no fiber, fat and little or no cholesterol. One packet of gel contains about 100 calories of highly-concentrated carbohydrates.

One reason sports bars, which got going in the mid 1980s, and gels, a product of the 90s, have become popular has to do with the relationship between mealtimes and exercise times.

"If you don't eat breakfast, and try to exercise at midday before you eat, it will be hard to keep your energy levels up," says the University of Colorado's Berning. "Or if you're a school kid with an early lunch, and have sports practice after school. That's why bars, gels and sports drinks have become real popular."

Many people -- school kids, office workers, busy mothers -- can't always control their mealtimes. So a bar or gel before or after exercise can provide or replenish energy stores. But even so, timing is still important. The body needs time to digest its food -- fiber in particular.

"A [sports] bar 10 minutes before a run is not the best thing to do," says Berning. "You want to eat one at least an hour before because you don't want to have a lot of food in your stomach, when you go out and run. Then the blood is rushing to your stomach [for digestion], instead of carrying oxygen to the exercising muscles."

"It's a conflict of interest," says William Vaughan, a biophysicist and one of the people behind the original power bar in 1985. "The body shunts the blood away from the muscle and into the gut. But [exercising] muscles need blood."

A full stomach also doesn't mesh well with cycling, running, or any kind of strenuous aerobic activity.

Those problems led Vaughan and a few other scientists to experiment with syrupy formulas that led to sports gels, in particular GU, which Vaughan brought out in 1991. "We were getting all kinds of complaints about stomach problems [with bars] -- belching, nausea, gas, vomiting . . . I figured there had to be a better way."

At first experimenting with formulas that incorporated various forms of proteins as well as carbohydrates, he eventually eliminated them. "They didn't make sense. They were burdening the gut with something that needed to be digested. And you don't need all these proteins during an activity. You want something to provide energy and prevent muscles from being degraded."

GU and the other sports gels such as Clif Shot and Power Gel have had their problems too -- in particular, their taste and texture. "Icky" is the word most frequently used to describe them, but despite that, they have strong advocates.

"I don't like the way they taste, but they work," admits Kelly Elwell, the store trainer at Patagonia in the District. "If you take a tube of GU and about a half a bottle of water, the wall definitely falls back down, and you're up and moving again."

Most people who don't exercise over a long period of time don't hit the proverbial "wall" that marathoners experience when the glycogen stores of their muscles run out (often around the 20th mile). And sports nutritionists generally agree that although it's useful to start to exercise with a full store of carbohydrates, an ordinary body -- as opposed to an athlete's -- doesn't really need to be fueled with anything but fluid during an activity unless it's an extended one -- that is, more than one hour.

So why do casual exercisers reach for sports bars and gels?

"It's really a matter of timing and convenience," says Penn State's Clark. "They're super-convenient, affordable and can be carried. I threw my banana in bag this morning, but it got bruised. I can cope with how it looks, but I know a lot of people who won't eat a banana if it looks disgusting."

Most people, however, would be happy to eat their carbohydrates in the form of chocolate -- even slightly bruised. So why choose a sports bar instead?

"A candy bar is mainly fat and pure sucrose," says Alphin.

"You get a lift quickly, but then it fades, because when you take in too much sucrose, in order for blood sugar levels to stay normal, the body reacts by releasing insulin from the pancreas . . . " What happens next is that the insulin can actually clear too much sugar from the blood, causing temporary low blood sugar and fatigue, she says.

"You don't get this result with the sports stuff -- they use other forms of sugar than sucrose, so you're not getting a high with the following low. You're storing or replacing energy," Alphin adds.

And calories.

And people who care about exercise aren't usually happy about extra calories. At the Duke Center, where many people come to learn about a lifestyle that incorporates exercise and appropriate weight, Alphin is cautionary. Bars and gels can aid performance, and help you feel better, but they do have calories. "We tell people no bars or gels, unless they've planned for a snack. . . . They're wonderful for athletes, but most people don't need them."

What you do need is fluid to keep the body hydrated and replace what's been lost through sweat. "If you're an everyday exerciser, and eat well, you don't really have a need for any of these products," says Alphin. "If you exercise less than an hour a day, all you need is water."

Putting Bars, Gels to Work

Say you exercise with some regularity. Just how do you figure out if sports bars and gels make sense in your program?

First of all, even before you get to the supplements, don't forget good general nutrition and lots of water (and during exercise, frequent hydration). Then, if you're exercising more than an hour, consider adding carbohydrates -- sports drinks, sports bars, gels, if you're into them. Or, get your carbs from actual food (bananas, bagels, bread or other fruit), although these may take longer to digest.

"Adding carbohydrates is the biggest thing you can do to extend or improve performance," says Luke Bucci, a biochemist who is the author of several books on sports nutrition, and the vice president for research of Weider Nutrition International. "You'll do better if you ingest them before, during and after exercise . . . Bars and gels make getting the right amount of carbohydrate easy and convenient. But you do have a choice between them and food."

In general, sports nutritionists agree sports bars are useful for: people who don't have time for a meal and want the convenience of a portable snack; people who complain about persistent low energy but don't want to eat any extra calories unless they're packed with nutrients; and someone who has just finished weight lifting.

Gels seem to be particularly useful for people engaged in long-distance activities such as cycling and running, where they'll repeatedly need something small and convenient to provide immediate extra energy to keep going. And they're also useful for people who haven't eaten for several hours and are starting up a particular activity, like an aerobics class.

Consider what the experts say about these specific situations:

A grown-up exercising before work:

Do you really have to get up even earlier to fuel your body? "Morning exercisers know how their body works best," says Liz Applegate, a nutrition consultant and lecturer at the University of California at Davis. "And they tend to be the ones who don't need to eat anything. But some people need a little bit of something -- a piece of toast, a gel -- something that sits well. Other people don't need anything and they're fine."

Jackie Berning, a Denver sports nutritionist, thinks it's usually a good idea to fuel with something to keep blood sugar up while exercising. "It's like fuel for your car; you need it. If you put fuel in your body, your blood glucose levels go up and provide a fuel for the exercising muscle, and your brain can think. So if you have an aerobics class at six in the morning, you might want a sports drink, a piece of toast, half a small bagel or power bar, half a banana, or one of the gels."

Adds Kristine Clark, the director of sports nutrition at Penn State's Center for Sports Medicine, "We wouldn't recommend cereal and milk, because you don't want protein or fat an hour before you exercise. . . . What you need to care about are fluids and carbohydrates, period."

A kid after school, a grown-up after work:

Everybody agrees that -- kid or grown-up -- if you haven't eaten in a few hours, it's a good idea to fuel up. "I look at my son in the 5th grade," says Berning. "He's got an early lunch, 11:30. Then he's got baseball at four in the afternoon. He's got to think and have muscle contractions when his energy levels are completely bottomed out. If he doesn't eat or bring something, he's gone from 11:30 to 4, and the ball goes right by him. If I throw in a sports drink or energy bar, or gel in his backpack, and he can find a drinking fountain, his brain can now think, and his muscles are saying, `at least I have some nutrient so I can go out there and perform.' "

A cautionary note: Kids in particular find gels icky.

After exercise:

After exercise is a good time to eat -- and replenish those carbohydrate stores. "You want to raise the blood sugar to saturate the muscles. It's the best time to eat," says Bucci. Unless you want to lose weight. "If you're trying to lose weight, you want to stress the body," he says.

So how do you decide whether to reach for some cereal, or an apple or a sports bar or gel? "When I talk to athletes or students, my concern is that they put in carbohydrates," says Berning. "But it's their choice whether to take in fluids like sports drinks or gels, solids like bars, or foods like a bagel or banana. Their job is to taste test them and figure out what's best for them."

Whatever else you do, hydrate:

Sports nutritionists are in agreement about the continual need for fluid -- before, during and after exercise. And fluid is needed during and after ingesting bars or gels, to flush them out of the stomach and into the bloodstream. "Water is still the most important nutrient we have," says Bucci. "But nobody makes big money on it," he says, "so you don't hear about it as much."

The Bar Vs. the Banana: One Woman's Test

In the interest of (not exactly perfect) science -- and getting through heavy-duty 75-minute step aerobics classes with more consistent energy -- I decided to try several strategies before exercising: a sports gel, a couple of different sports bars, some fruit and a piece of chocolate candy.

A Banana

Size: One small.

Taste: Predictable.

Timing: A half hour before a morning class.

Result: I got tired about 50 minutes into the class.


To be specific, the chocolate flavor GU.

Size: A single serving of GU comes in a 1.1-ounce bottle-shaped packet, has 100 calories, and no protein, fat or cholesterol.

Taste: The gels, to say the least, are not appetizing. The general principle is this: Open the container, squeeze the gel in your mouth, and drink as much water as it takes to get it down. (I chose the chocolate because I wasn't sure I could deal with the other flavors. The most popular, however, is vanilla.) I managed to swallow it in three gulps with several mouthfuls of water in between each.

Timing: About 10 minutes before class. Because gels are easily digestible, they don't have to be ingested an hour ahead of time. You can down one before or even during exercise, which is why long-distance cyclists like to carry them -- they can refuel when they feel the need.

Result: Excellent. I felt better than usual longer than usual.


Several were tried.

Size: The bars varied between 1.2 ounces and 2.4 ounces. Most of the time, I ate only half of the bar -- several nutritionists suggested that as an option.

Taste: What can I say? Although each is somewhat different, they all tasted grainy, dusty and heavy to me. The chocolate ones taste better than the others. The ones with the most fat taste the best.

Timing: About an hour before evening classes, and about 45 minutes before morning classes.

Result: The times I ate half a bar, I noticed nothing much: I didn't have more energy than usual, but I wasn't hungry. The one time I ate an entire 1.76-ounce bar 45 minutes before a morning class was very different. For the first half hour of class, I was breathing harder, I felt a little dizzy and the sweat poured out. I had clearly asked my body to do too much at the same time. Gradually, as these feelings subsided, I felt better and even less tired than at the beginning of class. But it was not an experience I'd repeat. Would I get up even earlier to make sure I had completely digested a sports bar (rather than a little orange juice and coffee on the wing)? Uh-uh.

Piece of Chocolate Candy

Size: About half an ounce.

Taste: What do you think?

Timing: About 45 minutes before an evening class (and before dinner).

Result: Terrific. This was a shocker. Go figure. If I'd eaten a whole candy bar, it might have upset my blood sugar balance, and maybe I would have wilted during class. But I'm not going to take this experiment any farther -- psychologically, the idea of eating a candy bar before exercising just doesn't compute.


Generally speaking, I'll stick with normal food. It's easier, tastes better, and to me it's somehow more logical. And I'll try to make sure to eat an hour before class. But I have to admit I'll keep some gels around -- if I'm pressed for time, I know I can count on one for a speedy source of energy.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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