Your Guide to Choosing Sports Snacks: Glycemic Index

glycemic index

Where Does the Glycemic Index Come Into Play?

Last week we covered the second of our three rules for sports snacks. Click here to read Rule 1 and here to read Rule 2.

Today we will cover our third and final rule to simplify your sports snack decisions. For a more detailed look at supplements as well as the easiest way for the whole family to eat healthily, get my book The 3/4 Rule.

Rule 3 – Eat lower Glycemic Index foods before training, and higher Glycemic Index foods after training.

The Glycemic Index (GI)

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed, which result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Say it with me – Diabetes.

refined snack

Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce a gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin levels which promotes an efficient, strong metabolism.

This means, eat whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, poultry, and eggs before practice and save your granola bars, yogurt, milk, and other packaged snacks for after practice.

This is when the body is greedily searching for sugars and proteins to restock energy supplies and effect repairs on muscle tissue.

Refined Foods

The more refined/processed the ingredients, the higher the GI load.

A sports bar with ingredients that are more refined is ground down into powders and pastes to produce a more smooth, uniform-looking bar. An example of a less refined sports bar is one with fully intact clusters of nuts and seeds.

Two powerful factors that reduce the GI load, by slowing the metabolization of sugars, are fat and fiber. Since the “Less Refined” bars pictured obtain a higher percentage of their calories from nuts and seeds (fiber and fat) they have a lower GI load than the “More Refined” bar. So, when choosing between bars, go for those that are both less refined and adhere to Rule #1.
Snack bar

All sports drinks and many sports bars are treated by the body as fast-acting sugars (high GI load) as a high percentage of their calories come from sugar, as well as being highly processed.

There is a correlation between the degree of processing and the glycemic/insulin load. Sports drinks are mostly made of sugars, including glucose polymers, which puts them at the top of the GI. Most bar-type supplements are made from at least 50% sugar, including fructose, rice syrup, and cane juice.

An exception is the flavor and fiber bar pictured here, with less than 1/3 of its calories coming from sugars and a whopping 12 grams of fiber, 8 grams being soluble.

With that much fiber, I’d make sure you do a little restroom reconnaissance if you are taking this bar on the road.

My potty mouth aside, remember that this is still a highly processed supplement and the types of fiber used in these bars are typically chicory root inulin and psyllium, which is a common over-the-counter intestinal bulking laxative.

The types of fiber added to supplements are mostly lacking, as they are either processed and extracted from whole food, or are an artificial, non-food-based form of fiber, which is not the same as the nutrient-dense fiber found in whole food sources.

The exceptions to this are bars that get most of their fat and fiber calories from nuts and seeds rather than sugar and fiber fillers. Keep in mind, aside from sugar, popular ingredients in many sports bars, including granola, rice, and oats are all metabolized as sugar and have a high GI load.

Yes, even the oats, as it is the cheaper, highly processed “quick cooking” oats that are used in sports bars.

Interestingly, it is the high fat and fiber content that makes both Milky Way and Snickers candy bars lower on the GI than Clif Bars. So why is a candy bar not preferred over trendy sports bars? The difference is covered by Rule #1, as candy bars typically violate the ingredients list of Rule #1 more than sports bars.

Still, unless your sports snacks are coming from whole food sources, packaged sports snacks are not nutritious, good for you or contribute to a fit and healthy life.

This does not mean they are all bad, but simply provide convenient calories (energy) in the form of sugars. Your job is limited to choosing the ones with the least amount of harmful ingredients. Simple, when you follow Rule #1.

Putting It All Together

Sports snacksSo, sports snack selection is actually pretty simple. Eliminate options by avoiding the ingredients listed in Rule #1, then make your choices based on taste.

Ultimately this leads us back to what we have always known… choose whole foods or healthy homemade snacks rather than conveniently packaged grab food.

Rule 1 – Narrow down the list of snack choices by discounting any that contain artificial sweeteners, flavors, additives, and/or colors. Simply choose from what is left by taste.

Rule 2 – Most athletes don’t need sports drinks or chocolate/flavored milk.

Rule 3 – Eat lower Glycemic Index foods before training, and higher Glycemic Index foods after training.

Now I’m hungry! If you have any comments or questions, let us know.

Chris Weiler