In recent years, sugar has become somewhat of a nutritional bogeyman. That’s because high intakes of sugar, or more accurately sugars added to foods, have been linked to a laundry list of ailments ranging from heart disease to diabetes to cancer—not to mention expanding waistlines. All of which may have you believing that there is no safe way to tame a sweet tooth. The good news is that you don’t need to take sugary foods off of your kitchen playlist. The key is being choosy about where you get your fix. We rounded up five sweet treats that runners can feel good about.
Turns out the parched grapes can help you raise your speed. Researchers in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that raisins were just as effective as more expensive carbohydrate-based sport chews at keeping runners’ endurance levels up during an 80-minute run followed by a 5K time trial. Raisins contain a cocktail of fast-working sugars that supply a useful energy source for muscles in motion.
Action Plan: During long workouts, try eating ¼–¹⁄³ cup raisins, along with water, for every hour of exercise.
Best Buy: Made in Nature Organic Raisins, $5 for 9 ounces
It’s a good idea to embrace your inner Wonka. British scientists discovered that athletes who snacked on 40 grams of dark chocolate daily experienced a decrease in the oxygen cost of exercise and increase in endurance capacity compared to when they nibbled on white chocolate. Other research suggests the dark delight can lessen exercise-induced muscle stress. These benefits likely stem from lofty amounts of flavanol antioxidants.
Action Plan: For a greater dose of antioxidants, look for at least 70 percent cocoa and snack on 1 ounce daily.
Best Buy: Alter Eco Dark Blackout, $4
Forget soda or OJ. Modern research suggests that pomegranate juice can lessen signs of muscle damage associated with vigorous exercise—an important perk considering it can quicken recovery time. The polyphenol-rich juice appears to increase the antioxidant defense system in the body. More good news: It’s also a source of the electrolyte potassium to aid with proper muscle functioning.
Action Plan: Look for bottles not cut with filler juices like apple or pear. Drink 1–2 cups a day during heavy training.
Best Buy: Pom Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice, $4 for 16 ounces
Cyclists with a banana sticking out of their jersey pockets are on to something. A study in the journal Plos One reported that during a 75K bike ride, bananas —when consumed with water—were just as effective as a sports drink at bolstering endurance. The monkey food contains a winning mix of carbs and electrolytes, like potassium, that can benefit runners as well.
Action Plan: Add ripe bananas (black spots on the skin mean more easy-to-digest sugars) to smoothies and oatmeal. For run convenience, bring a stash of baked banana chips.
Best Buy: Bare Cinnamon Banana Chips, $4 for a 2.7-ounce bag
If you like sweetened dairy, consider kefir. This cultured, yogurt-like product is home to a sizable population of friendly critters known as probiotics, which may help lessen post-exercise inflammation as well as fortify your immune system, so you’re less likely to come down with the sniffles. Fruit-flavored kefir supplies a duo of sugars (both natural and added) with protein that can kick-start muscle recovery much like chocolate milk would.
Action Plan: After a sweat session, gulp 1 cup. Also use in smoothies, granola and pancake batter.
Best Buy: Lifeway Strawberry Low Fat Kefir, $6 for 32 ounces