Sports Drinks: More Harm Than Good?

May 22, 2009 | By: Christie Wilcox

Additives, Featured, Food

Everyone wants to make the most of their workouts. Whether it be the perfect number of reps or which exercises burn the most fat, we’re always looking for a way to get more bang for our buck when it comes to exercise. That’s why we shell out over 5 billion dollars a year on sports drinks like Gatorade, which we think will help us build muscle, lose weight and stay hydrated. But do sports drinks really live up to their claims?

The Hype With Hydration

Is it in you?  Lets hope not too much...

Is it in you? Lets hope not too much...

For every 15 minutes of exercise, you should be drinking 4-6 ounces of water. That means downing at least a full glass every half an hour. If you’re not drinking enough water while working out, you might be tempted to grab a Gatorade instead, thinking it will hydrate you better for the volume. Gatorade and other sports drinks claim to help you hydrate better than water. But, in truth, they have little to support those claims. Study after study has found that, in general, the additives in sports drinks have no effect on water absorption in our bodies. Nothing gets more water into your system than – shockingly – water.

The salt in gatorade makes you drink more water, keeping you hydrated!

The salt in gatorade makes you drink more water, keeping you hydrated! (Dawn Endico on Flickr)

But, the truth is, people who drink sports drinks do tend to stay more hydrated than their water-guzzling peers, but it’s not for the reason you’d think. It’s not some special formula that allows for better absorption. Instead, sports drinks, with their sweet-tart tastes, do the opposite of what you’d expect – they don’t quench thirst. Studies have found that both the taste and specific salt and nutrient ingredients in sports drinks do cause people do drink more, thus keeping them more hydrated, in general, than those who drink water.

Of course, all that really matters is that you get enough liquid – water and sports drinks will both do that. So if you find it a lot easier to down a bottle of Powerade every hour instead of water, then as far as hydration is concerned, that’s fine. Just understand that you could get the same hydration without the cost by turning to your tap instead.

The Emphasis On Electrolytes

The major selling point when it comes to sports drinks is that they’re jam packed with the salts and electrolytes that you lose when you sweat. Thus, they claim, they’re better to drink during and after exercise than water alone.

As far as physiology is concerned, there’s reason to think about electrolytes. Our body’s sweat system relies on salts to actually pump water onto our skin to evaporate and cool us off. That’s why sweat tastes salty. And we do need to replenish these salts if we lose a lot of them.

Also, to retain water in our bodies we need a certain amount of salts, too.  That’s because our digestive system uses a salt gradient to pull water out of our intestines. Not only that, but athletes can suffer from a condition called hyponatremia where they have dangerously low levels of sodium in their blood, either due to loss of salts via sweating or over-hydration with water.

Are you one of these guys?  Maybe water is ok then (credit, Frederic de Villamil, flickr)

Are you one of these guys? Maybe water is ok then (credit, Frederic de Villamil, flickr)

However, the truth is that the casual exerciser – anyone who isn’t a real, hardcore athlete – probably doesn’t need to worry too much. It’s really, really hard to lose enough electrolytes to actually need to worry about replenishing them in a sports drink instead of just eating them with your next meal. You’d have to be working out hard for 3-5 hours – think marathon or iron man training – to use up your body’s stores of these salts and minerals.

And, even sports drinks don’t guarantee keeping the electrolytes high in your body to prevent conditions like hyponatremia, since most drinks have less electrolytes than our blood anyhow. Nutritionists and doctors have accused the sports drink advertisers with exaggerating and over-extending the benefits of sports drinks.

“It’s a way of peddling soda to the health-conscious crowd,” Dr. David Katz, physician and nutrition expert at Yale University School of Medicine, told ABC news. “If you’re in training for the NFL, then having Gatorade at the sidelines is reasonable, but most people use them badly.”

He points out that, in general, sports drinks are packed with unnecessary sugars and calories that aren’t a part of replenishing electrolytes or hydrating better.

When it comes to electrolytes, while sports drinks do contain more than water, the point is that you probably don’t need to care. If you eat regularly, you’ll replenish all your lost salts and nutrients anyhow, and you don’t need a Gatorade while working out to make sure you’re OK. Of course, if you’re a real athlete, then you might have cause for sports drinks. After all, athletes are who these drinks are designed for, not everyday consumers.

Do The Calories Count?

Sports drinks also contain calories, which are advertised as necessary to keep up your exercise performance and make the most of your workout after, allowing you to burn fat and build muscle. They do this, they claim, by providing glucose and other sugars as fuel during exercise and proteins and carbohydrates to help your body build muscle after the session is over.

If you’re working out for a long time, having some extra calories like the ones provided by sports drinks aren’t a bad idea. If you exercise at a high intensity – not just a light workout – for more than an hour and a half, then you could probably use some calories to keep your performance continuous. Even kids who work out hard can benefit from sports drinks.

Of course, if your goal is to lose weight, drinking calories is like shooting yourself in the foot. The point is to use the calories you have already, not to drink more to use while exercising. And if you don’t work out at a high intensity for a long time, you don’t need the extra calories anyhow. So sports drinks aren’t for the casual exerciser while taking a ten-minute treadmill run or jog around the block.

As for after-exercising, while the actual work might be the hard part, the lasting effects do happen after you quit. In the hours right after working out, your body is busy recovering. It’s during that time that it does need protein and carbohydrates to build muscle and repair any damage the workout might have caused. So sports drink advertisers are right to focus on this time as key to making the most of your efforts.

They neglect to mention, however, that other alternatives are probably at least as good, if not better, for you than sports drinks. One study from McMaster University found that drinking milk instead of sports drinks after exercising led to more weight loss and muscle gain. And just this week, another study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that eating cereal after exercising was better for muscles, in both replenishing the glycogen energy stores and building muscle proteins, than drinking sports drinks. In general, eating or drinking foods that contain high levels of protein after working out will do a better job than drinking a sports drink when it comes to building muscle and losing weight.

Here is a video of an opinion on sports drinks, much along the lines of what we are saying here:

The Bottom Line

Yes, sports drinks can hydrate you, provide electrolytes, and even help you make the most of your exercise. But they’re not miracle drinks, and they aren’t necessarily even better than water – especially when it comes to hydration. Unless you’re a pro athlete or an iron man contender, you probably don’t need the electrolytes or calories from sports drinks during your daily routine. If you work out for 1/2 an hour then drink three Gatorades, you’re consuming far more calories than you burned during your workout – if your goal is weight loss, you aren’t going to help yourself at all. And as far as building muscle and losing weight, there are better alternatives than sports drinks for after you’re done working out.

Like anything else, proper exercise nutrition is all about being smart about your food and drink choices. If you want protein to build muscle after your workout, see if the drink you’re downing actually has that much protein, for example. The basic answer is that if something is designed for athletes, it’s probably only best for actual athletes. But if you read labels and stay informed about exactly what you’re putting into your body, and odds are you’ll be able pick out what’s good for you.

  • AmpedWithEnergy

    You hit the nail on the head. Sports drinks can be complimentary to any exercise program, but at the same time it’s important to pay attention to the ingredients. If you’re not burning more calories than your taking in, you’re not going to make any gains. Some people drink energy drinks to help them gain more energy for workouts, but just be cognizant of the amount of calories they contain as well. Keep tabs on how many calories your burning during your workout and compare that to how many calories your sports or energy drink contains.

  • AmpedWithEnergy

    You hit the nail on the head. Sports drinks can be complimentary to any exercise program, but at the same time it’s important to pay attention to the ingredients. If you’re not burning more calories than your taking in, you’re not going to make any gains. Some people drink energy drinks to help them gain more energy for workouts, but just be cognizant of the amount of calories they contain as well. Keep tabs on how many calories your burning during your workout and compare that to how many calories your sports or energy drink contains.

  • waternut

    You might want to bone up on your nutrition facts. When we sweat, we lose not just water, we also lose important minerals like sodium and potassium. Sure, sports drink have sugar…but that is needed for energy.

    And that thrist thing…if you are thirsty, then your body has already lost 2% of it’s water, and you are dehydrated. Might want to pick up a sports drink before you damage your body.

  • waternut

    You might want to bone up on your nutrition facts. When we sweat, we lose not just water, we also lose important minerals like sodium and potassium. Sure, sports drink have sugar…but that is needed for energy.

    And that thrist thing…if you are thirsty, then your body has already lost 2% of it’s water, and you are dehydrated. Might want to pick up a sports drink before you damage your body.

  • Emily

    good article

  • GATORADEisBETTER

    water sucks! it really really sucks!

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