Every year my friend Brian and his buddies hike from one rim of the Grand Canyon to the other. It’s 24 treacherous miles and they do them all in one day.
Many of the hikers in Brian’s group use energy gels like GU for better performance and to boost endurance.
Unfortunately, these energy gels make people slower, sicker, fatter and poorer. Use of these energy gels does your body more harm than good.
The fuel your body uses to feed itself comes from fat and carbohydrates.
There’s lots of fat in our bodies but it breaks down into useable energy quite slowly. That’s why fat is an inefficient fuel source for anything above 60% of your threshold pace.
Energy gels like GU attempt to deliver carbohydrates (glycogen) to power your muscles and your body though workouts and events. Makers of gel recommend you take one packet of gel (about 100 calories) every 45 minutes.
As Dr. Deborah Schulman points out in her excellent article on the subject, by using gels so frequently your body always has a ready supply of glycogen. This means your body never learns to burn fat efficiently and develops a tolerance because of its gel dependency. Because of this tolerance, you actually increase your risks of bonking and running or moving slower than you normally would.
One of the primary ingredients in these energy gels is fructose.
Most people think that fructose is safe because it is derived from a natural source, namely fruit. That is a false belief. Not only does fructose not fuel the body, it also can make you very sick.
Here’s an excellent article about 10 reasons why fructose is bad for your body.
When doing aggressive exercise, like racing or long-distance hiking, your body’s primary source of fuel comes from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can be broken down into two types:
Complex carbs are the best type of fuel for runners and hikers. Complex carbs avoid high spikes in your blood sugar levels. These high spikes are what cause you to lose energy.
Complex carbs have a low rating on the glycemic index (GI). This means they are digested slower than carbs with higher GI ratings. The slower rate of digestion means glucose molecules are absorbed more slowly. That’s why you don’t have high spikes in blood sugar levels.
Foods high on the glycemic index spike your blood sugar levels. These foods cause a huge surge of insulin from the pancreas; this in turn results in your blood sugar falling rapidly to a low level, creating a condition called “hypoglycemia.”
Not only does this condition increase the enzymes that produce fat, hypoglycemia makes you hungry and lethargic.
The significance of this slower molecule absorption from complex carbs is that the body is not forced to release high levels of insulin – which eventually may lead to insulin resistance, fat production and diseases such as type II diabetes.
Energy gels promote that they contain complex carbs in the form of maltodextrin. The problem with maltodextrin is that the body quickly converts it into a high glycemic index substance – 50% higher than table sugar! If you think the health dangers from table sugar are bad, imagine what this stuff is doing to you.
Most energy gels use maltodextrin made from genetically modified corn. This GMO corn has been linked to numerous health hazards and has been banned because of these health hazards in more than 30 countries world-wide.
Although fructose and maltodextrin are the primary ingredients in energy gels like GU, they also contain preservatives derived from GMO corn. The vitamin E in these products is most likely included to prevent oxidation damage of the product and provides zero nutritional value.
Now, let’s examine the health hazards of the packaging of these products. The foil package they use is full of harmful chemicals that leak into the product. And next time you are at REI, look at how many hands touch these products. They’re a literal breeding ground for bacteria.
At a buck per serving, using energy gels can become an expensive endeavor.
If you use just one energy gel on each run, and you run five times a week, that’s $780 a year! That’s about five pairs of running shoes!
Why pay anything for something that hurts your performance, is not food, harms your health and has zero nutritional value?
There’s little doubt that energy gels are easy to carry and easy to take.
So are some other fueling options that are better for your performance and your health:
I want you to have great runs, hikes and athletic events while performing at your best in a safe and healthy manner. Read all the labels of any foods or products you are considering putting in your body. Fuel yourself properly prior to your event. Avoid products with high GI ingredients like maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and fructose. You’ll perform better and you’ll stay healthy in the process.
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