You don’t have to be an athlete to appreciate the popularity of sports drinks. Off the field and outside of the gym, they’re consumed by children, exercise enthusiasts, and even those suffering from a hangover. In spite of their popularity, it’s been debated whether sports drinks are healthy for you.
Before appearing on nearly every sideline, Gatorade devoted a great deal of research trying to understand the affliction athletes suffered after long, intense exercise.
They discovered the cause was a lack of electrolytes. These extreme conditions caused athletes to lose both electrolytes and fluid. Gatorade was developed to replenish electrolytes and rehydrate athletes at the same time.
What are Electrolytes?
Since this discovery, you’ve heard trainers and athletes preaching the importance of electrolytes, but what makes them so essential?
Electrolytes are minerals with an electrical charge and are vital for your body’s normal operation. Your body needs them for nerve, muscle, and brain functioning.
When you sweat your body loses both water and electrolytes. So it’s important to replace them, especially during long-duration exercise.
There are several different electrolytes, but the main electrolytes found in sports drinks are sodium and potassium.
The function of the particular electrolytes depends upon which type of mineral it is:
- Calcium: helps with muscle contractions, nerve signaling, blood clotting, cell division, and forming/maintaining bones and teeth
- Potassium: helps keep blood pressure levels stable, regulates heart contractions and helps with muscle functions
- Magnesium: also helps with muscle contractions, proper heart rhythms, nerve function, bone-building, and strength, reduces anxiety, improves digestion, and maintains a stable protein-fluid balance
- Sodium: helps maintain fluid balance, helps with muscle contractions and helps with nerve signaling
- Chloride: also helps maintain fluid balance
Sport Drink Ingredients
The formula for each sports drink is made from a similar list of ingredients. The original Gatorade formula is a mixture of salt, sugar, and water, with citrus-based flavoring and added food coloring.
The various sports drink products are changed depending upon the particular product (i.e. low calorie vs. original formula), and what country they’re being sold in (some foods dyes and artificial sweeteners are banned in certain countries).
The original Gatorade Thirst Quencher contains water, sucrose (table sugar), dextrose, citric acid, natural flavor, sodium chloride (table salt), sodium citrate, monopotassium phosphate, and flavoring/coloring ingredients.
Aside from the artificial coloring used in many sports drinks, most are loaded with sugar. One 20 oz bottle of Gatorade contains 34 g of sugar. According to the American Heart Associate, the most sugar you should consume in a day is 25 grams for women and 37.5 grams for men.
Best Time to Drink Sport Drinks
We can agree that electrolytes are good, but the added sugar – not-so-good. This leaves the general consumer left asking, “Is there ever a time to drink a sports drink?
Research has proven that unless you’re exercising for multiple hours at a time, such as people training for a marathon or working out for multiple hours, there’s no need to drink sports drinks.
That means the average gym rat, yogi, and weekend warrior will replenish the electrolytes they lose from working out just by consuming a normal diet. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, are loaded with extra sugar that does more harm than good.
Your water and normal diet provide enough electrolytes if you’re working out for an hour or less. If you’re training for a marathon or working out for multiple hours, you may consider a more electrolyte-dense beverage such as a sports drink.
Alternatives to Sport Drinks
As we’ve already discovered, a loss of electrolytes is not a big danger for most of us. Maintaining healthy hydration is an important part of your health. So, your main goal should be to focus on drinking enough liquids throughout the day.
One study led to an interesting finding that there was no difference in the hydrating ability of water, sports drinks, tea, and soda.
In fact, the study confirmed that beverages, typically considered to be dehydrating, such as coffee and beer, hydrated the body about as much as water. Other research has shown that coffee can help keep you hydrated, contrary to popular belief.
Most drinks can contribute to your daily fluid requirements and help keep you hydrated.
This doesn’t mean that you should drink cola or beer during exercise, but it demonstrates that a wide variety of beverages can provide hydration throughout the day.
Sports drinks are an easy source of electrolytes, but they also include a lot of sugar. If you’re concerned you’re lacking electrolytes and don’t want to resort to drinking a sports drink, then consider the following foods that are great for restoring electrolytes:
- Coconut water
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruit
- Cultured dairy (amasai, kefir, yogurt)
If you’re training for a marathon, a triathlon, or working out for multiple hours at a time, then a sports drink could be a good source of hydration and electrolyte replenishment. However, if you’re not exerting large amounts of physical energy in extreme conditions, then good old water and a healthy diet is the way to go.