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Natural Alternatives to Gels

  • 3 min read

Sports nutrition has become so scientifically focused that the ingredients in products such as gels read more like a chemistry textbook than an edible food item.

As a research nutritionist I am all for scientific validation and from a legal point of view the health and nutritional claims regulations insist on it. However science does have one main flaw, it looks at specific things in isolation so it will analyse one key nutrient or a specific component in an individual food item such as beetroot and cherry. 

Nutritionally the key to sports nutrition is energy and muscle repair. This is however what all our bodies want to achieve. You need to produce energy to function but you also have to deal with the resulting effects of oxidative stress produced during metabolism. Simply you make energy, you use it and then you are left with bi-products such as toxic waste and free radicals that damage cellular tissue if you don’t get it shifted. The more you burn the bigger the restoration job and athletes get through a lot. 

For energy there is no doubt carbs are king and the main one used in the sports world is maltodextrin. This is a cheap to make hydrolysed starch that is technically a complex carb but in reality goes through the digestive system rapidly. So it can have a low sugar content but paradoxically a high GI because it is simply ready to go energy. It seems so easy however effective energy production is not a simple case of shovelling in the carbs. The body needs a wide range of other nutrients to enable it to keep producing sustained energy and repair itself afterwards. This is the benefit of natural foods with a high nutritional density. Highly nutritious natural foods such as nuts and seeds are not mono but multi- nutritious. You don’t need to strip food down to individual components then add the odd nutrient artificially; nature has had the whole functioning on maximum sorted out for centuries. The body was designed to thrive off nutritionally diverse foods so the mantra is the more natural the ingredient the more nutrition.

It is also worth remembering that the digestive processes can take days to extract nutrients and energy. Pure carbs such as sugar or process starches may give you an instant short lived hit but any other slow release carb, protein, fatty acid, mineral or vitamin will not work on the spot. Basically to get maximum performance and recovery you need to eat healthily on a regular basis as it’s how nutrients work over time that counts. You may find an extra tweak on the day will give you an advantage but if your diet is continually under nourished and high in refined carbs, your true potential is going to allude you.

Finally one nutritional mantra does not fit all. We all compete at different levels but sports science is generally carried out at an elite level. Yes you may be very good but don’t feel pressurised by statements such as take an hour or two for recovery. Those that achieve their maximum potential have learnt to understand what does and doesn’t work for them nutritionally. If it upsets your stomach, makes you feel sick or gives you mega highs and lows then forget what it says on the packet and find what works personally for you.

Liz Tucker

Health and Nutritional Advisor and Journalist


Top 3 tips to natural nutrition from Liz Tucker

  1. Select the right kind of energy source – choose foods that have a high nutritional content so every calorie counts. For example nuts and seeds may have the same energy value as a doughnut but each calorie has a nutritional density. Doughnuts are just empty calories, energy with little or no nutritional value.

  2. Come prepared – gels are very easy to consume however natural foods can be just as simple to digest so juice it, chop it, bake it or select natural ready to eat products.

  3. Look for natural highs – maintaining a healthy balanced diet rich in natural foods such as veg, fruit, nuts and seeds works because that is what the body is designed to run on. Give it the nutrition it needs and it will give you maximum energy.

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