Should Runners Always Avoid Ultra-processed Foods?

What to know about the pros and cons of these products, specifically for athletes.


Sports dietitians have recommended runners pre-game a workout, long run, or race by eating Rice Krispie treats or similar, and often tout consuming sports drinks, gummies and gels mid-run. The problem: These are all technically ultra-processed foods, which dietitians also suggest you limit as much as possible. So what gives? Is it possible that ultra-processed foods are sometimes the right nutritional choice for runners?

To find out, we asked dietitians to explain ultraprocessed food, and the pros and cons for runners.

What is ultra-processed food?
You’ve likely heard of “whole foods” — those that are in their natural state, such as nuts, seeds, some meats and fish, fruits, and vegetables. They have not been chemically or mechanically processed.

Dietitians have long recommended that we eat foods in their natural state or as close to that as we possibly can. That’s because when manufacturers process foods, they often add salt, oil, sugar, or preservatives that can lessen the healthfulness of the products, plus the processing itself may strip the foods of certain nutrients that support your well-being.

Some foods, even when canned or frozen, are minimally processed, “like beans in a can, for example,” Heidi Skolnik, sports dietitian at Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City tells Runner’s World. “They’re really a whole food, but processed in such a way as to be convenient and easily accessible.” Other minimally processed and convenient foods include frozen vegetables without sauces, canned tuna, and frozen fruit.

Ultra-processed foods, however, “are essentially manufactured foods. Often, they don’t resemble anything — think Twinkies or deli meats,” Skolnik says. These foods may have lots of added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, preservatives, artificial colours, hydrogenated fats, and they also often lack fibre.

The reason this is a concern: Research links high consumption of ultraprocessed foods to poorer health outcomes. For example, the British Medical Journal pooled data from dozens of studies covering more than nine million people and found an association between ultra-processed foods and increased risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, common mood disorders like depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues.

So, why would a runner eat ultra-processed foods?
Runners need energy to perform, and your body gets energy from ingesting carbohydrates, a macronutrient which, in its simplest form, is sugar (when the sugars bond together, they create complex carbohydrates, i.e., starch or fibre).

“Our bodies break down fat or carbs as our energy source,” Terence Boateng, a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist, and owner of CS Nutritiono tells Runner’s World. “Typically, when we’re moving slowly, most of our energy is coming from fat. As we increase the intensity of what we’re doing, we need more and more carbohydrates as a fuel source.” If you’re sprinting, for example, your body will turn to carbs instead of fat for fuel.

One of the best ways to get these necessary carbohydrates into your system can be a quick hit from a sports product such as a gummy, a gel, or a chew, all of which are ultra-processed. “They’re small, shelf-stable, and easy to grab and go,” Lauren Link, assistant athletics director for sports nutrition at Purdue University tells Runner’s World. “With athletes, convenience and accessibility are important, and processed foods should play a role in their training.”

Sure, you could eat a peanut butter sandwich made with minimally processed foods to fill your energy bucket, but imagine running with a sack of them or even a few bananas.

“Depending on the intensity and length of your training, you need about 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour,” Link says. “To get that amount of carbs you’d need one to two peanut butter sandwiches per hour. That’s not very realistic.”

In addition, she adds, “even if you were to eat 60 grams of fruit or a whole grain, you’d likely have stomach issues,” thanks to the high fibre and fat content that take longer to digest. That’s why it’s easier to turn to most chews and gels, which have about 25 to 30 grams of carbohydrates.

When should runners turn to ultra-processed performance products?
While dietary recommendations are typically based on a person’s size or weight, when it comes to energy and carbohydrate needs, “my first question to a runner is about intensity,” Boateng says. “If you’re running a 10K or 15K , but it’s at a casual pace, you may not need any gels. But if you’re running a 15K race and are going to be pushing as hard as you possibly can, your body’s going to be focusing on a lot more carbohydrate utilisation. Gels do become much more necessary.”

Also, the more time you have before a run, the more kilojoules and complex nutrients you can have, Skolnik says. That means you wouldn’t necessarily need a sports product if you have two hours before you head out, and you could eat a bowl of cereal or bread and peanut butter. “But if you’re looking to top off the tank 15 minutes before you hit the road, you want a smaller amount of food that’s an easier-to-digest carbohydrate. You’re not looking for high fibre right then, as you would with a meal. You could try a squeezy applesauce, an energy gel, or some pretzels,” Skolnik says.

Another benefit of sports nutrition products is the mix of ingredients. Studies have also shown that you can optimise your energy by combining different carbohydrates, e.g. glucose, fructose, and/or maltodextrin. You might see this referred to as multiple transportable carbohydrates, which means a product has a mix of types of carbs in order to make them more easily digestible.

“A lot of ultra-processed sports foods have a mix of simple sugars to help with digestibility and utilization of those carbohydrates, since you could max out on glucose if a product has only glucose,” Link explains. “If you’re working at such really high-intensity training where knowing the right mix is very important, that could be a good reason to work with a sports dietitian to help you find the sports products that make the most sense for your training.”

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Should you limit other ultra-processed foods?
“Should we be eating ultra-processed foods as meals and during the day? No. We should eat more whole foods,” Link says. “But purposefully using an ultra-processed food around training and competing is helpful for performance.”

In other words, if you’re not training at high intensity, high volume, or competing, you don’t necessarily need sports products like gels or chews, drinks. “For regular snacks, you can eat a piece of fruit and a cheese stick, for example,” Skolnik says. “Still, if you’re running short on time or access and need a quick ‘something,’ then of course, go ahead and eat a bar.”

Skolnik points out that runners sweat more than sedentary people and may even crave things like chips, salted nuts, and pretzels. And “although no one needs to justify what they eat or needs to ‘earn’ a cookie, runners do have more room for ‘discretionary calories.’ No single food determines your health and well-being,” Skolnick says. “[Your] patterns, habits and choices over time are what impact [your] health.”

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