Health & Fitness

Fitness foods – are they worth the hype?

Protein bars, sports drinks, whey powder shakes – we look at whether they’re fads or fab.

Fitness fans buying specialist sports food and drink to help fast track and improve sports performance would be better sticking to simple food options, says leading dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton.

“Natural foods, such as beetroot, milk, eggs and seafood can do just as much, if not more, for our bodies than expensive sports supplements,” says Carrie. “For the majority of people, exercise is part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle to improve strength and fitness and food is the key to fuelling this. To maximise fitness performance research proves it is better to eat a healthy diet, full of natural produce, rather than waste hours seeking the latest fad.”

So what do you do swap your protein shakes and sports supplements for? Dr Carrie Ruxton gives us her super swaps.

Sports drinks

It used to be you’d only turn to a sports drink if you’ve been exercising all day long, but nowadays, many of us turn to them for a quick swig like we would a cup of tea.

Carrie says: “Electrolyte and energy drinks are often packed with sugar and caffeine but are rarely worth having unless you’re exercising hard for more than an hour. The acids in the drinks also contribute to tooth erosion“.

Swap for: A glass of skimmed milk. It’s been shown to be as hydrating as a sports drink thanks to the combination of sodium and potassium.

Branched chain amino acids (BCAA)

These essential protein building blocks are used to target performance and stop muscle breakdown after exercising. They’re usually in supplement form.

Carrie says: “The European Food Safety Authority looked at the claims make for BCAA but didn’t find enough evidence to support them.

Swap for: Beetroot. It’s packed with nitrate and antioxidants which help your muscles recover faster after exercising.

“There are several good studies on beetroot which show enhanced exercise efficiency, probably due to the high nitrate content which boosts circulation, muscular contraction and energy uptake by cells. Beetroot also helps to reduce muscle soreness after exercise,” says Carrie.

Protein shakes

Almost every exercise class or gym sells these for a post-workout pick me up, but are they really essential for muscle-building? Most protein shakes are based on whey, a by-product from cheese making.

Carrie says: “All protein helps to build and repair protein. However, the average person needs 45-55g of protein a day but eats up to 65-85g. Even someone exercising a few times a week only needs around 70g of protein a day so we’re getting enough in our diets. Protein shakes contain 20-40g of protein per serving which could push our daily intakes too high”.

Swap for: Protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish, beans and pulses. Aim to eat them 3-4 times a day to spread out your intake. These natural products can supports muscle repair more than downing a protein shake.

Protein bars


It might seem like a convenient snack for on the go but look beyond the packaging and you might find it’s healthy exterior is all a ruse. The long shelf life of protein bars can also mean a whole load of additives.

Carrie says: “Protein bars typically contain 15-20g of protein but a third of their weight is sugar which puts most of them in the red traffic light. The average protein bar gives you 150-200 calories per serving which is pretty high for anyone trying to watch their weight.”

Swap for: Eggs. A high protein snack is great after exercising so try a lower sugar option such as a couple of boiled eggs.


A popular supplement in the gym, creatine is a type of protein that provides the energy for muscle contractions.

Carrie says: “Creatine works but only in older adults who are doing regular resistance exercises, according to the European Food Safety Authority.

“This means that regular gym-goers are probably wasting their money. Excessive creatine has been linked with weight gain, anxiety, kidney problems and nausea”.

Swap for: Things like seafood, nuts, spinach and soya, which help the body to naturally make creatine in response to the specific amino acids found in these foods.

Try a Thai-style stir fry using prawns, edamame beans, peanuts and green leafy veg for a tastier way to gain muscle energy.




Share this post:

Receive our editor's picks weekly to your inbox