Are Sports Drinks Healthy? Or Is Water a Better Option?

Hydration is key for athletes and active consumers during and after training. The marketing of sports drinks as optimal hydration replenishment has been strong over the past few years. A wide range of consumers have been drawn to the sports drink aisle with hopes of improving athletic performance. But are sports drinks really all they’re cracked up to be? Are they the magic elixir to elite fitness? Are they a healthy option for athletes and active consumers alike?


Water


Drinking water does more than just quench a thirst. Water makes up much of your body weight. It is essential for keeping the body functioning properly. Nearly all the major systems within the body depend on water to function and survive. It is important in many functions within the body such as:

  • Regulating body temperature

  • Maintaining moist tissues in the eyes, nose, and mouth

  • Protection of body organs and tissues

  • Waste product elimination

  • Lubrication of joints

  • Carrying nutrients and oxygen to and from cells

  • Dissolving minerals and nutrients

For the body to function at its best, it’s important to replenish its water supply. Especially if you are exercising regularly and losing additional water through sweat. Water is the main ingredient in many popular sports drinks. But sports drinks also contain other substances.


Benefits of Sports Drinks


Sports drinks contain carbohydrates and electrolytes. Electrolytes can help regulate fluid balance, while carbs provide energy.


Electrolytes

Electrolytes are minerals that assist in maintaining the body’s ionic balance. They are minerals carrying an electric charge. Electrolytes found in the body include:

  • Sodium

  • Potassium

  • Phosphorus

  • Magnesium

  • Chloride

  • Calcium

Electrolytes affect how the body functions in multiple ways.


Proper hydration: Water levels need to be balanced both inside and outside of cells within the body. Electrolytes, particularly sodium, assist in maintaining this fluid balance through osmosis. Osmosis is the process of water moving from a dilute solution (more water/less electrolytes) toward a more concentrated solution (less water/more electrolytes). This balance of water in and out of cells is critical. Too much water can cause cells to burst. Too little water can cause cells to shrivel due to dehydration.

Nervous system function: The brain is constantly sending electrical signals. These signals travel through nerve cells to communicate with other cells throughout the body. These nervous impulses are generated by changes to the electrical charge of nerve cell membranes. This change occurs due to the movement of sodium, a major electrolyte. When sodium crosses a cell membrane, it starts a chain reaction. More sodium ions move along the nerve axon. This axon conducts electrical impulses away from the neuron cell body. This is the primary transmission line of the nervous system.


Muscle function: Calcium is an important electrolyte needed for muscle contraction. It allows muscle fibers to slide over each other as muscles shorten and contract. Magnesium also assists in the muscle contraction process. It allows the muscle fibers to slide outward and relax following contraction.


pH Levels: It’s important for the body to regulate internal pH levels to stay healthy. pH is a measure of acidity. Within the body, this is regulated by chemical buffers. Weak acids and bases help minimize changes in the internal environment. The blood is regulated to stay around a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. Deviating from this may interrupt proper body function. Having the right balance of electrolytes is critical for maintaining blood pH levels.


It is important to replace electrolytes lost during exercise. It is especially important when working out in the heat. Failing to replace electrolytes can lead to an imbalance within the body. Disturbances in electrolyte balance can be harmful to your health. Symptoms of electrolyte imbalance include:

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle weakness

  • Muscle cramping

  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

Sports drinks contain electrolytes such as potassium and sodium which can help replace what is lost during exercise.


Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important macronutrient. They play a crucial part in the make-up of sports drinks. Sports drinks are typically a 6-8% carbohydrate solution. A 6% solution would contain approximately 14 grams of carbs per 8 fluid ounces.

Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. This glycogen can be used for fuel during exercise. Carbohydrates are the quickest form of energy for muscles during exercise. Sports drinks typically contain at least two different forms of sugar. These sugars are typically in the form of glucose, sucrose, or fructose. These sugars can be used by the body for quick energy when training.


Are Sports Drinks Healthy?


There is a time and place for sports drinks. Especially for those who exercise regularly at high intensity. Endurance athletes engage in prolonged physical activity lasting more than one hour may benefit from the addition of a sports beverage. Additionally, athletes exercising in hot and humid conditions may benefit from a sports drink to help replenish electrolytes and fluids lost during training.


Sports drinks were designed for athletes performing intense physical activity. The popular sports drink, Gatorade, was developed to help replenish carbs and electrolytes in high intensity elite athletes at the University of Florida in 1965. Research has shown sports drinks to benefit athletes performing longer high intensity exercise. However, most active individuals in the general population do not exercise intensely enough or long enough to need sports drinks.


Sports drinks are loaded with sugar. For those not training at intense levels, this sugar can prove detrimental. An original 20 oz serving of Gatorade Thirst Quencher contains 36 grams of sugar – 3 grams less than a 12 oz soft drink of Coca Cola. 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. This means that in one bottle of Gatorade there are 9 teaspoons, or 3 tablespoons, of sugar. That is nearly a quarter cup of sugar in your post workout sports beverage.


The American Heart Association suggests keeping added sugar to less than 25 grams of sugar per day for women and less than 36 grams for men. This means an average gym goer drinking a Gatorade after their workout matches or exceeds their daily sugar limit.

Excess added sugars can also lead to unwanted tooth decay. Sugary sports drinks can lead to enamel erosion over time. Most sports drinks have a pH between 3 and 4 which has been associated with tooth enamel demineralization.


Sports drinks can have a negative effect on weight loss as well. When aiming to lose weight or avoid weight gain, the most important factor to consider is energy balance. Losing weight results when you burn more energy than you consume. Often sports drinks are unnecessary for the type of exercise a consumer is performing. This means consuming them provides unnecessary sugars and calories. Consumers often forget to factor in what they drink towards their overall consumption for the day. But these liquid calories count. This is less than ideal if weight loss is the goal.


Is a Sports Drink for You?


The main goal of hydration choices is just that, to stay hydrated. Plain water is the best option for those working out less than 60 to 90 minutes per day. It will keep active consumers properly hydrated without providing unwanted calories and sugars. For those working out at higher intensities, sports drinks may be a beneficial addition to support overall performance.


Are you interested in learning more about how nutrition can support athletic performance? Check out the ISSA’s Nutritionist course to explore the connections between your clients, food, and meeting healthy goals.


ISSA

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