Tag Archives: Sports Nutrition

How to make your own energy bar

5 Easy Homemade Energy Bars

Do you want tasty treats to help energize your workout? Then consider making your own “energy” bars. Beyond great taste, you will have control over the ingredients. You’ll likely save money too!

Although clever marketing fools many, most commercial bars are nothing special.  You can create delicious bars in your own kitchen that will power your workout just as well, if not better, than an expensive bar.

And you don’t need special ingredients. In fact, many homemade energy bar recipes tend to be overly complicated and claim to be healthy because of hyped-up ingredients like coconut oil, agave nectar, or a protein powder.  Or they boast being “naturally sweetened” implying that something like organic brown rice syrup,  coconut sugar, or sugar from dried fruit is better than regular sugar (it isn’t).

READ  Are "Natural" Sweeteners Healthier than Sugar?

Although I recommend limiting sugars when you’re not active, sugar will fuel your working muscles and might help your workout performance if you’re exercising vigorously and/or for long periods. In fact, many of the harms attributed to sugar have to do with how it is metabolized when sedentary, or in sedentary individuals, not in athletes.

Here are five bars that rely on simple whole foods available in most grocery stores. They provide healthy fats, but are generally low in fat, because during exercise your muscles require carbohydrates as fuel.

A potential downside of homemade bars is the time required to make them.  But give it a try! Make a batch and freeze so you’ll have a convenient and portable snack on hand when you need it.

Ginger Bars with Chocolate

These spicy bars are amazingly delicious! The ginger delivers a good zing, and the molasses keeps them dense and fudgy. You can whip these up pretty quickly, which will make your entire house smell pretty wonderful.  These bars are great workout fuel, but certainly tasty enough for a lunchbox treat or as a sweet with coffee or tea.

You can substitute a different nut or seed butter for the peanut butter. I’ve tried tahini – sesame seed butter – and almond butter would work well.

Sheila’s Quick & Easy Oatmeal Bars

These bars feature oats, which are a staple of my diet.  For athletes, oats are a terrific and inexpensive source of carbohydrates to help fuel muscles.  Also,  according to this study, oats might help enhance nitric oxide production, which is important for heart health and might benefit athletic performance.  This recipe is quite versatile, so create your own variation by modifying the dried fruit and nuts/seeds to suit your taste. These bars feature whole grains (oats and 100% whole wheat flour), are relatively low in fat, with most of the fat coming from healthful sources (nuts and seeds) that provide other important nutrients.

Double Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites

These bites are simple to make, using only five ingredients. Their bite-size portion is often “just right,” so you can doll out energy as you need fuel during long hikes, runs, cross-country skis, or bike rides.

The oats and raisins are a good source of carbohydrates, the peanut butter provides healthy fats, rounded off with a double-chocolate hit of cocoa and chocolate chips.

Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Bars

These bars are dense and chewy and taste like brownies.  They are a bit of a departure from energy bars that are full of nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and other wholesome ingredients —  which is the kind of bar I typically prefer on slower-paced  workouts, where the low intensity makes it easy to digest the seeds, nuts, fats, and fiber in the bars.  I like these bars for more intense workouts or intervals – when you need a burst of sweetness that goes down easily (kind of like an energy gel that actually tastes good).

For eating outside of workouts, this bar recipe is likely healthier than most cookies or bars.   Whole grains (whole wheat flour and oats) replace the more typical refined white flour (and you probably don’t need to worry about the gluten in the flour). I also used this baking strategy, substituting almond butter for most of the butter. Almond butter provides heart-healthy fats instead of saturated fat, as well as protein, fiber, and minerals that many people lack. Peanut butter works in these bars too (and is much less expensive!).

Sesame Date Energy Bites

These bites have a double sesame punch with sesame seeds and tahini (sesame butter): these little seeds are very nutritious and most often used as a garnish, so here’s a good way to take advantage of their superior nutrition.

I know, a refined cereal like Rice Krispies seems out of place with the rest of the wholesome ingredients, but the added crunch is worth it.  And if you’re going to eat refined carbs and sweet dates, during activity is the best time to do it:  your body processes the sugars to use as fuel and help sustain long workouts.

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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about inactivity in kids, why sugar is not the enemy, how wearable tech is changing exercise research, why saturated fat matters, and more.

kids_videogamesPhysical Activity in Canadian Kids is Alarmingly Low. The 2014 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth was released this week. This year’s report looked at how Canadian youth compared to 14 other countries  and revealed that although Canada has a well-developed physical activity infrastructure and programs, Canadian kids are at the back of the global pack for overall physical activity levels.  Physical activity in youth is alarming low, with only 5% of 5- to 17-year-olds meeting the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines (being active for 60 minutes a day). New Zealand and Mozambique were the most active countries, with kids reporting 78 minutes/day of physical activity.

Although some blame parents, a solution likely lies in a combination of efforts at all levels – individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and public policy. More info:  Report Highlights;  Tips to increase your kids’ physical activity levels2014 Report Card on the Physical Activity of Children and Youth.

Is it the Electronics? On the same theme this week, Finnish researchers linked low levels of physical activity combined with heavy use of electronic media and sedentary behaviour to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and vascular diseases in 6- to 8-year-old children (yikes!). Another study in the journal noted significant correlations between parent and child screen time.  Time for kids (and adults) to get away from the screens and play. (International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, May 2014). 

sugarsSugar is Not the Enemy (especially for active people).  Most people eat too much added sugar, and recent guidelines highlight the health effects of this habit. Some wonder if this overemphasis on one nutrient is overshadowing the large problem of inactivity.  In fact, bodies that move are much better equipped to handle sugars: when diabetics exercise, they require less insulin to control their blood sugar; endurance athletes rely on sugar to fuel fast performances (here’s an example of the sugars a world record marathoner would ingest during an event). Although most of us aren’t running marathons (certainly not at that speed), exercise might mitigate the undesirable effects of sugar (David Despain, Outside Magazine).

Wearable tech is changing exercise research. Much of physical activity research has relied on questionnaires and self-report to monitor exercise.  A trend to using more objective measures (e.g., accelerometers) will certainly help provide better information and more accurate results (unfortunately, by necessity, most nutrition science still relies on self-report). (Live Science).

Saturated or not: Does type of fat matter?  Experts in the field are worried that recent media coverage sensationalizing results of a study on saturated fats could be detrimental to public health.  Check out this link to view the interpretation of a  panel of nutrition experts (Harvard School of Public Health).

Healthy or Hype? Coconut Oil.  Find out if coconut oil lives up to the health claims and hype in my new series.

Olive Oil Does Your Salad Good.  We are learning more and more about why nitrate-rich vegetables are good for us, and how they  might improve athletic performance.  This new study highlights benefits of the perfect culinary combo – olive oil and leafy greens! (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Roasted Potato Salad with Vegetables.  Perfect for a weekend BBQ – nutritious, with plenty of flavor. (would be good with arugula->nitrate-rich veggie).

See more Weeks in Food, Health, and Fitness

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What Should I Eat Before I Workout?

Eating before exercising can be tricky: figuring out how to fuel for workouts in the early morning, lunch breaks, or supper-time takes some planning and practice. But it’s definitely worth finding a plan that works for you, since the food you eat before your workout has many benefits besides curbing hunger: it can help fuel your muscles and brain, top off your glycogen stores, increase motivation, decrease perceived exertion, boost your endurance and performance, and set the stage for faster post-workout recovery. On the other hand, what you eat (or don’t eat!) can also lead to lightheadedness, fatigue, cramping, or gastric distress.

Here are some tips to help you do it right. . .

What to Eat

Carbohydrate-rich foods or beverages are your best bet before exercise. These foods tend to digest well and quickly, so you won’t have as much in your gut while you’re exercising. Carbohydrates are an athlete’s main source of energy, stored in muscles as glycogen, or circulating in your bloodstream as glucose.

What not to eat: Limit heavy proteins and fatty foods before exercising (meats, greasy foods, cheeses) since they take longer to digest. Spicy foods and very high fiber foods are also best to avoid (whole grain breads, cereals, and most fruits are probably fine – and preferable to refined foods – for most, but best to avoid gas-producing foods like beans/legumes and cabbage).

Won’t carbohydrates cause my blood sugar to crash and make me tired?  While it is true that carbohydrates will increase insulin and blood sugar, followed by a decrease in blood sugar at the beginning of exercise, studies have shown that this dip in blood sugar is short lived and doesn’t affect overall energy levels. The performance benefits of ingesting carbohydrates far outweigh the small and temporary decrease in blood sugar. However, some individuals are more sensitive than others to increases in insulin. These individuals should try consuming carbohydrates with a lower glycemic index (i.e.,slower digesting carbohydrates that cause less of an increase in blood sugar). Also, consuming carbohydrates (e.g., sports drink) during activity can offset drops in blood glucose.

Protein.  Research suggests that including a small amount of protein in your pre-workout meal can help support muscle repair and growth. Good choices for most athletes that are well-tolerated before exercise include low-fat or non-fat dairy products like yogurt and milk, nut butters, or eggs. Decrease the protein content of your meal in favour of carbohydrates as you get closer to your workout time.

Fluids. Start your exercise with optimal fluid levels. Water, milk, soymilk, or unsweetened fruit juices are good options. Liquid/blender meals (e.g., fruit smoothies) can cover fluid and carbohydrate needs, are convenient, and tend to digest well.


Here’s a scenario for timing pre-workout meals and snacks.

  • 3-4 hours before training: eat your last big meal– which should favour carbohydrates but also include protein and fat.
  • Within 2 hours of training: eat a carbohydrate-rich snack and/or beverage.
  • 60 minutes to start of workout – drink sports drink or water and a very light snack

When this timing isn’t practical, pay more attention to your food choices and portions. Generally the closer you are to your workout time, the fewer calories you should consume. Stick to higher carbohydrate foods or liquids that you tolerate well.

woma eating apple_MSMorning Workout: While you sleep, liver glycogen can deplete by as much as 80 percent. Eating something before morning workouts will help stave off fatigue – even a light snack will help. Some people can tolerate a decent-sized breakfast with no ill effects. If you don’t have time, or you can’t stomach food before early workouts, be sure you consume something like a sports drink during exercise to provide the fuel and liquids you need.

Evening Workout: If your last meal was at noon, you’ll need to eat before heading out to exercise. Depending on the intensity and time of the workout, a full meal might not be possible. Be sure to consume a healthy carbohydrate-based snack, or a smaller portion of more traditional supper foods that you know sit well. If possible, you might want to change your meal time to benefit your workout. For example, if your evening workout is at 6:30, try to eat lunch at 2:30, have a light snack at 4:30, and sports drink, diluted juice, or water and another light snack within an hour of your workout.

This study found that athletes performed poorer at night when they didn’t eat breakfast  – something to consider if you’ve got an evening workout or race.

Here’s a graphic to help you figure out what to eat before intense training or racing. Athletes vary quite a bit in what they can tolerate, so be sure to practice in training or time trials so you can figure it out before important events.

eat before workout 3Pre-workout Snack Ideas

These types of foods are popular with many athletes and suitable to consume within 2 hours of a workout. Experiment and find out what works for you.

  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole grain bread or bagel
  • Banana topped with 1 tbsp. nut/seed butter
  • 1 cup breakfast cereal topped with lowfat milk or soymilk and ½ cup fruit
  • Fruit smoothie: Blend 1 cup milk or soymilk, 1 banana, ½ cup frozen strawberries or blueberries
  • 1 cup yogurt with 1 cup chopped fruit or berries
  • Pita with hummus, vegetable juice
  • Whole grain bagel or bread topped with tomato slices and low-fat cheese

Foods to avoid before hard efforts

Tummy Troubles?

Intense exercise diverts blood flow from the stomach to the working muscles, which can interfere with digestion. This can lead to cramping, bloating, and nausea in some individuals. If you suffer GI problems during activity, consider the following:

  • Choose your pre-workout foods carefully, limiting high fiber foods, spicy foods, heavy proteins, and fatty foods.
  • Allow enough time between eating and exercising – experiment with different time windows
  • Eat familiar foods that you know won’t upset your stomach (e.g., low-fiber cereals with lowfat milk, applesauce, low-fat yogurt, bread or bagels and jam, or bananas)
  • Stick to small portions of easily digested carbohydrates like breads, pasta, and rice
  • Liquid meals are generally well tolerated and empty the gut quicker than solid foods (e.g., blend milk, banana, other fruit).
  • Sports drinks are also generally well tolerated, especially in the hour before training since they exit into the small intestine sooner and are absorbed quicker.

Also, you might want to consult this recent review on gastrointestinal issues in athletes.

Race Day Nerves

track photoEven with practiced eating routines, pre-competition nerves can wreak havoc on the heartiest of stomachs.  In addition, high intensity efforts often require modifying your pre-exercise diet. Generally, follow the guidelines above for “tummy troubles,” and when in doubt eat less, and opt for liquid calories.

Finding what works for you

Use these pre-workout eating strategies as a guide, but keep in mind that food preferences and tolerances vary quite a bit among individuals. Also, what you can eat may depend on the activity (e.g., cyclists can generally tolerate more food in their stomachs than runners). Intensity has a great influence too: you can get away with eating more food and a variety of foods before an easy workout compared to a time trial or intervals. Try out different foods, portions, and timing in training, and find out what works best for you.

Also, beyond your pre-workout foods, remember that your overall diet is critical to good health.

Although engineered products (e.g., sports drinks, bars, gels) are convenient and well-formulated forms of fuel for exercise, they are mostly refined carbohydrates and not the foundation of a good diet.

Aim for an overall diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats. These foods are important for good health, will help fight disease, and boost your immune system.

For optimal recovery, follow-up your activity with healthful post-workout foods.


This infographic by exercise physiologist Yann Le Meur provides a nice summary of eating before exercise, based on a fact sheet by the Australian Institute of Sport.

Eating Before Exercise_YLM

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Track Photo by COD Newsroom

Updated April 7, 2015


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Sports Nutrition Research Updates and Articles

I enjoy keeping up-to-date with the latest nutrition, sports science, and disease-prevention research.  Remember, although one study can make a dramatic headline, it often takes years of research and different kinds of studies to show how something is affecting our health.

  • For a general overview of nutrition for athletic performance that puts the latest research in context, check out this page.
  • If you are looking for good sports nutrition resources, check out this page.

Below are links to recent research or well-presented articles that caught my attention.  I’ll be updating the list so be sure to check back!


Low Carb Diets for Athletes

Currently there is no good evidence to suggest that low-carb diets improve performance in athletes. Avoiding carbohydrates is more likely to decrease performance.

Eating for Performance

Foods That Might Boost Athletic Performance

Pre-Exercise Nutrition

Protein Intake and Performance

Sports Nutrition to Prevent or Help Heal Injuries

Nutritional Support for Exercise-Induced Injuries. Nice review article summarizing the evidence to date about nutrition for sports injuries. (Kevin Tipton, Sports Medicine, November 2015).

Can what you eat help sports injuries? Muscle and tendon injuries are common in athletes, and new studies are uncovering new rehabilitation and and diet strategies that can help muscle and tendon heal faster.  Exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup summarizes evidence presented at a recent conference for muscle injury and tendon injury. (Asker Jeukendrup, Mysportscience.com)

Here’s a great video explaining this research and other nutrition strategies for injuries by the folks at  Guru Performance.

Sports Nutrition to Prevent Stress Fractures

Prone to stress fractures? Consider your sports nutrition.
Weight bearing exercise is generally good for bone health, because bone responds to the stress of exercise by becoming stronger.  But some athletes are more prone to stress fractures than others, especially athletes who aren’t eating enough for the demands of their sport.

Female athletes who are underweight and amenorrheic often have decreased bone mineral density and are at increased risk for fractures (reduced estrogen limits the amount of calcium absorbed and laid down in bone). Also, late menarche (more common in female athletes) has a negative impact on bone health and increases stress fracture risk.

Although a variety of factors contribute to fractures, recent research suggests that what an athlete eats before, during, and after exercise can influence bone turnover. Making the right choices could potentially offset bone loss and prevent stress fractures.

Carbohydrates during exercise might benefit bones.  It is already firmly established that eating carbohydrates helps endurance performance; this week a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at how carbohydrates (8% glucose solution, similar to most sports drinks) during exercise influence bone metabolism during a strenuous 2-hour treadmill run. Researchers found that compared to placebo, runners who ingested carbohydrates during their run had reduced markers of bone resorption (breakdown). The effect was small and requires further study, but if you’re someone who goes without food/carbs during long workouts (and are prone to stress fractures), it seems this would be an good strategy to adopt, especially since carbohydrates will help other performance measures as well.   (Journal of Applied Physiology, October 2015)

Another strategy for bone health is a calcium-rich meal before exercise. Athletes lose calcium through sweat during exercise, which puts them at risk for bone loss, especially if their activity is non impact since it doesn’t benefit bones. A study in female cyclists found that eating a dairy-rich meal 90 minutes before riding can counter bone loss.  The pre-ride calcium-rich meal keeps blood calcium levels stable, so your body doesn’t borrow calcium from your bones to replace what’s lost in sweat. (PLOS ONE, May 2015)

Sports Drinks

Special Diets

Eating Disorders

Vitamins and Supplements

Iron & Calcium

Antioxidant Supplements


Eating for Recovery/Adaptations to Endurance Exercise

Sport Specific Nutrition Research


Sprinting, weightlifting, throwing events, and bodybuilding

 Photo by jimmyharris



Updated April 27,  2017

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