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Are energy drinks and snacks a boost or waste of money?

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Energy DrinksWe spend billions on them every year, but are energy drinks and snacks the instant boost that they claim to be, or simply a waste of money?

We drank 495m litres of energy drinks in the UK in 2011 – that’s 7.9 litres each.
In need of some post-exercise refreshment or a quick pick-me-up before walking the dog? The UK market for energy drinks is worth £1.2bn a year – perhaps because almost half of us turn to a branded “healthy” drink or boost bar to give us some get-up-and-go during and after exercise. But recent studies indicate that the health claims are “misleading” and that these products can be full of unnecessary sugar and calories. “Quick-fix energy enhancers are often laced with glucose or caffeine, so you get a rush but soon come crashing back down,” says Katie Peck, a registered dietician.

“For the average exerciser it’s much better – and cheaper – to get your boost from proper, nutritious food, because this energy lasts longer.” To help you make more informed choices, we’ve investigated the key ingredients found in the more popular energy drinks and snacks – and concocted some healthy DIY alternatives.

1 Caffeine

Found in: Red Bull.

Expert’s view: “Caffeine gives you a lift by stimulating your nervous system, which causes the release of stored glucose into your bloodstream,” Peck explains. “It does have energy-enhancing effects, but they’re short-lived. We all tolerate it differently and many energy drinks contain much more caffeine than a cup of coffee does, which can leave you feeling shaky or a bit hyper.”
DIY alternative: “Blend a banana, berries, low-fat yoghurt and oats with milk and honey. This smoothie is full of B vitamins – nature’s energy booster.

DIY alternative: “Blend a banana, berries, low-fat yoghurt and oats with milk and honey. This smoothie is full of B vitamins – nature’s energy booster.

2 Carbohydrate-electrolyte

Found in: Lucozade Sport.

Expert’s view: “The risk with drinks such as these is that, if you don’t exercise enough to burn off the carbohydrate you’re taking in, your body will simply store it as fat,” Peck says. And, unfortunately, a stroll round the park isn’t enough.

DIY alternative: if you’re exercising for more than 90 minutes, make your own energy drink. Mix 500ml of pure fruit juice (no added sugar) with 500ml of water and a pinch of sea salt or other mineral salt. “You’ll get all the electrolytes and fluid with a fraction of the sugar,” Peck says.

3 Glucose and carbohydrates

Found in: energy snacks such as Nakd and PowerBar.

Expert’s view: the key to sustained energy isn’t a glucose rush; it’s knowing which foods your body needs and eating them at the right times so you don’t crave that fix. “It’s easy to reach for a supposedly healthy energy bar, but they’re often expensive and full of unnecessary ingredients,” Peck says.

DIY alternative: “Have a snack containing carbs – such as fruit – an hour before exercise if you’re on the go, followed by one of carbs and protein – such as a handful of nuts – afterwards. This will boost your energy and help to repair your muscles.”

4 Protein

Found in: balance bars and protein shakes.

Expert’s view: “Many products such as protein powders are endorsed by well-known athletes, which makes us think that we can emulate them if we use these, too. But they’re really necessary only if you are training at an elite level – and they are often very expensive,” Peck says.

DIY alternative: a simple glass of milk has been proven to help your body recover after exercise and it helps you to burn more fat, too.

This article was first published in issue 22 of benhealth, Spring 2013

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