Fueling the Engine

Here’s your handy guide to both off-the-shelf and at-home energy foods and drinks

Looking to boost your energy throughout the day? Whether you’re trying to overcome the 3 p.m. slump or to increase your athletic performance, it’s important to select the appropriate foods to sustain your energy.

For guidance on the best off-the-shelf and at-home energy foods, I interviewed these six local health experts—nutritionists, trainers and athletes:

• Matt DiStefano, marketing manager at CoreTen Fitness, Wilmington

• Janet Glennon, owner of Toned by Janet, Wilmington

• Kate Mackie, RN, ACSM & ACE-certified trainer at Fusion Fitness Center, Newark

• Scott McCarthy, owner and personal trainer at Balance Strength & Fitness Center, Wilmington

• Nikki Mowbray, membership director and certified health coach at the Central Branch YMCA, Wilmington

• Laura Van Gilder, professional cyclist for Mellow Mushroom Racing Team

What I learned is that, one, I need to eat healthier, and two, all advice should be weighed against your specific nutritional needs, which depend on several factors: age, activity level, body type and hormones.

Also, when it comes to energy food, it’s important to consider your overall health and fitness goals—whether you’re looking to lose, maintain or gain weight and/or muscle. For this article, we’ll focus on macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein and fat—the basic components of any diet and the source of most of our energy.

According to Mowbray, healthy adults who want to maintain weight generally need a macronutrient ratio of “50 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent protein and 25 percent fat.”

For athletes and weightlifters, who generally want to gain muscle, McCarthy recommends a combination of 40 percent carbohydrates, 35 percent protein, 25 percent fat.

And for those hoping to lose weight, the macronutrient distribution shifts to 45 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein and 25 percent fat, says Mowbray.

Note: these ranges are estimates and should be based on your body type and nutritional needs.

So, how do these percentages factor into energy food and exercise? As shown in the chart below, our health experts recommend the following macronutrient breakdown to fuel your pre- , during, and post-workout. Keep these in mind when selecting off-the-shelf and at-home energy foods. 

PRE-WORKOUT DURING WORKOUT POST-WORKOUT
Heavy carbs and some protein 90 minutes to two hours before working out. “During high intensity workouts (it’s best to) sip an electrolyte-rich drink with sugar,” says McCarthy. Around a 2:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrates.

Off-the-Shelf Bars

Energy bars are convenient and tasty, but with scores of options, how do you choose?

“When looking for an energy bar, be a customer of the (nutritional) labels,” says Glennon. She recommends looking for energy bars that are low in sugar, made with whole ingredients, namely whole nuts, berries and grains, and if needed, high in protein. Go one step further, recommends Mowbray, and “look for bars that are low in trans fats and no added sugars.”

Some bars are marketed as protein or energy bars, but they may contain upwards of 20 grams of sugar, making them no more than “a glorified candy bar,” Mowbray says.

Finally, choose a bar based on when you’ll need fuel. Energy bars are excellent for pre-workout snacks, especially when combined with a balanced diet. They also are a great supplement both during and after endurance-based activities lasting more than a couple of hours.

“I always have a bar or two in my gym bag or in the car to bridge the gap between meals,” says DiStefano.

Sports Drinks and Gels

Need an alternative to Gatorade? Professional cyclist Van Gilder recommends hydration tablets—Nuun and Skratch Lab.

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Nuun; they’re just like Alka-Seltzer—dissolvable effervescent tablets. Pop them into the specified amount of water and enjoy fun flavors like Strawberry Lemonade and Tri-Berry.

Adds Van Gilder: “(Nuun’s) tropical flavors encourage me to drink when I otherwise wouldn’t.”

Nuun tablets are packed with electrolytes and are low in calories and sugar. Skratch Lab’s Hydration Mix is similar, but available only in powder form. With flavors like Matcha + Lemons with caffeine and Raspberry, both Skratch and Nuun offer a cheaper alternative to the well-known hydration brands.

For those who need sustained energy during intense workouts or competition lasting more than two hours, Van Gilder also recommends Gu Energy gels, which are easily digestible and a perfect way to get carbohydrates during strenuous exercise without causing gastrointestinal issues that accompany eating solid foods.

For post-workout recovery, many of the health experts recommended protein shakes. “Just keep in mind,” says Mackie, “that protein powders are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration,” so stick to reliable brands like Optimum Nutrition and PlantFusion. Both brands ranked high with the experts due to their high-quality protein and flavor varieties.

Here’s a roundup of off-the-shelf energy bars and drinks recommended by our experts:

NAMES CLAIMS BEST FOR NOTES
Kind Bars All bars are made from “nutritionally dense ingredients like whole nuts, fruits and whole grains”; no artificial flavors, preservatives or sweeteners. Everyone Recommended by a majority of the panel, Kind Bars are lightly drizzled with chocolate and are perfect for those with a sweet tooth.
Quest Bars High protein (20-21 grams per serving); no added sugar, soy or gluten. Athletes Mainstream choice for protein bar. Perfect for athletes needing a high protein bar to fuel their workouts.
RX Bars No added sugar; no artificial colors or flavors; no preservatives or fillers, and no dairy, soy, gluten or B.S. (yes, they claim that). Everyone Those who want real ingredients and no B.S.
LUNA Bars Non-GMO, no gluten, partially-hydrogenated oils, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup or artificial flavors; also high in calcium, folic acid and iron. Made specifically for women, but men can indulge too. LUNA bars are one of the first bars created specifically for women. Owned by Clif Bar &
Company, makers of Clif Bars.
Kashi Go Lean Bars All bars have “multi-source plant protein,” are non-GMO and have no gluten. Some bars are vegan. Everyone For those who seek exotic flavors.
Epic Bars No dairy, gluten, grains, soy; low in sugar and high in protein. Everyone The only “paleo-friendly” energy bar on the list that is meat-based. Epic bars are perfect for those who want little to no sugar.
Nuun Hydration Tablets Low in calories and sugar; packed with electrolytes. Athletes Portable and easy-to-use. Multiple product lines: Active, Energy, Vitamins and Performance.
Skratch Labs Hydration Mix Non-GMO; no dairy or gluten; and vegan and kosher. Athletes No artificial sweeteners and portable (if you buy the individual sachets). Not all flavors dissolve due to the
“real” fruit.
Optimum Nutrition – whey powder High quality (100 percent whey). Athletes 24 grams of protein per serving. Also offers casein, soy, egg and blended proteins.
GU Energy Labs’ Gel All energy gels are vegan, gluten free and kosher. Athletes Ultra-portable sachets that are 100 calories per packet and high in carbohydrates for sustained energy.
PlantFusion – vegan protein powder No dairy, eggs, fish, gluten, nuts, shellfish, soy, or tree nuts; and no artificial flavors or preservatives. Athletes 21 grams of protein and 120 calories per 12-oz. shake.

At-Home Energy Foods

All-day energy doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all solution or “miracle” food. Our health experts stress the importance of continually fueling the body throughout the day and not getting to the point of being “hangry” (hungry + angry). Mowbray’s solution to fuel the 3 p.m. slump is to eat a “mini meal,” or 150-250-calorie snack that balances the right number of macronutrients—mostly carbohydrates and protein, with minimal fat.

Says Glennon: “Stay away from refined foods, which are low in fiber and can cause a glycemic spike, in addition to fatty and fried foods, which require a lot of digestion.”

Adds DiStefano: “What it boils down to is the preparation time. You’re bound to make less healthy choices when you have no options.” He recommends having a jar of peanut butter readily available
for when the “hangry” monster appears. His go-to snack is a PB&J smoothie with almond milk, strawberry purée, banana, peanut butter, spinach, flax seeds and protein powder (optional).

Or, if you’re in downtown Wilmington, head to CoreTen Fitness’ Smoothie Bar, which is open to the public. Stay energized throughout the day by filling up on these at-
home energy-packed foods:

AT-HOME ENERGY FOODS EXPERT’S TAKE
Dried berries & nuts “Trader Joe’s has a massive selection of dried fruits and nuts, so you can mix and match,” says Mowbray.
Fruit/vegetable with protein Carrots or peppers and hummus; apple or banana
and nut butter.
Eggs One of the most inexpensive, protein-dense foods available.
Smoothies Pre-measure frozen fruits into plastic bags for when the craving strikes.
Greek Yogurt “Try Chobani 100 or Dannon Oikos Triple Zero Greek yogurt. Both varieties are low in sugar,” says Mackie. “Mix with berries and nuts for a low-calorie yogurt parfait.”
Nut Butters A resounding favorite among all interviewed. “Stick with nut butters that have little to no added sugar,” says Mackie.
Water Stay hydrated with this free (sort of), zero-calorie drink.
Chocolate Milk A good, inexpensive, high-endurance, post-workout recovery
Whole grains Combine whole grains with protein to “hold you over” between meals. “Quinoa is high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats,” says Glennon.
Beans and lentils “Beans and lentils are low in fat and high in many micronutrients and fiber,” says Glennon.
Oatmeal with fruit “Choose non-instant oatmeal topped with fruit,” says McCarthy.

These are just a sampling of the energy food and drink options on the market. With so many out there, we encourage you to read the nutritional label carefully and use these energy food charts as a guide to fuel your engine throughout your day and your workout. Reference the charts to get started.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.