Hype or Health: Sports Drinks – Are They All They Claim to Be?

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Mike Mozart

Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Mike Mozart

It’s not uncommon to see glass cases at gyms full of neon colored beverages. If you’ve been to a youth sporting event on a warm Saturday, you often see kids holding one. They’re stocked in convenience stores and are a $6.81 billion business. We’re talking about sports drinks. Are they good for you and help sports performance as much as they claim?

Why Sports Drinks?

According to several brands, the purpose of sports drinks is to rehydrate after being active.

When you perform a physical activity, because of sweating, your body loses water along with important electrolytes that contribute to a healthy and functioning body, such as:

  • Chloride: Chloride is a negatively charged electrolyte that balances positively charged electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Typically an abnormal chloride alone is not dangerous to your health, and is more assessed along with other electrolytes to assess optimal electrolyte and acid-base balance
  • Potassium: Potassium helps maintain the correct balance of fluid in the body as well as the right chemical balance of acids and bases. Potassium also triggers muscle contractions, including heart muscle contractions. The balance of potassium with other electrolytes is the key to assessing optimal electrolyte function
  • Sodium: The mineral sodium plays an important role in many processes in the body, including muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, and fluid balance. Your sodium level can be impacted by hydration status, medications, and many other causes.

If you’re active outside on a hot day, you’ll sweat more = lose more. Losing too much water and electrolytes can result in dehydration, muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, and mental confusion. It is the balance of all of your electrolytes together that assess optimal electrolyte function.

Sports drinks promise to recharge, replenish, and replace vitamins and minerals lost, to help you recover after a sweat session.

What’s In Sports Drinks?

We pulled the ingredients list from some of the top brands of sports drinks and found they have a few commonalities.

  • Various types of sugar: Sugar, Cane sugar, Dextrose – All sugars, regardless of how they are labeled, have similar effect on the body when it comes to raising blood sugar levels which induces insulin levels to rise. Sugars are a source of glucose, a type of sugar that circulates in your blood. Excess sugar in the blood contributes to inflammation and diabetes.

    To give an example of just how much sugar is in a popular sports drink, a bottle of Orange Gatorate contains  21 grams of sugar per serving. This one bottle contains approximately 2.5 servings. 4 grams of sugar= 1 teaspoon, so this means that one bottle contains 50 grams of sugar, or over 12 teaspoons of sugar.

    The daily recommended allowance from the World Health Organization is 6 teaspoons, max. According to Fed Up, most Americans consume an average of 41 teaspoons per day. That’s over 6x the recommended daily allowance. That also means a typical sports drink bottle has twice the recommended daily allowance of sugar.
  • Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners lowers the calorie and sugar amount in their nutrition labeling. Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda), high fructose corn syrup, and sugar alcohols (eg. Erythritol) have been linked to various side effects, including diarrhea, stomach and abdominal pain. They have also been reported to alter the gut microbiota and disrupt the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, causing metabolic changes that can be a precursor to diabetes, according to the New York Times and Nature.
  • Multiple servings in one bottle: When it comes to serving size in food marketing, “this is a classic marketing trap which makes a product look healthier than it actually is. In general, the serving size does not reflect an actual ‘normal’ serving. Therefore, the calories and nutrient quantities you truly ingest are much greater than expected by a glance at the label,says biochemist and health hacker Jessie Inchauspe.
  • Artificial Dyes: The inclusion of coloring additives like Red 40 and Yellow 5 are what give some of the drinks their bright hue, and are not an ingredient that’s touted as pro-health. In some countries they are banned, and are recognized for potential serious side effects, such as allergic reactions like asthma, and hyperactivity such as loss of concentration and impulsive, and hard-to-control activity.

Bottom Line: Hype

Are sports drinks a source of rehydration? Yes, in that they contain water and the nutrients, like electrolytes, promised. Are they the best or only source? No.

When it comes to shooting for optimal health, the most important question to ask is ”Where you can get these desired effects without the possible negative side effects?”

3 Things You Can Do Instead

  1. Drink water before and after: Need help making it a habit? Try these 7 tips and tricks to help you drink more water.
  2. Change it up: The electrolytes and nutrients you are trying to replace, such as potassium, can be found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables. Try combining a fruit with water to replenish nutrients and rehydrate. The additional advantage of eating a whole food like fruit is that it contains fiber. Eating fiber will help the natural sugars in fruit travel into the bloodstream at a steady rate, as opposed to the blood sugar spiking effect sports drinks have because of their high processed sugar/no fiber content. Fiber consumption also promotes a healthy gut.
  3. Check your labels: Some products may offer alternatives – if you do your due diligence to be informed and read the ingredients, you’ll grow your awareness. In general, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of reading about what’s in your food. With new information you are empowering yourself to make a healthier choice. 

How WellnessFX Can Help

We believe that the best way to see and understand meaningful change in health and wellness is through starting with what’s inside – your biomarkers.

WellnessFX measures electrolytes like potassium, calcium, chloride, and sodium in your blood to help you maintain your well-being and to reach your personal fitness potential. We also check sugar, average blood sugar, and insulin levels, too.

If you want to get started by testing and monitoring your own biomarkers, our flagship Baseline panel empowers you to understand and improve your underlying health by combining advanced biomarker analysis with an intuitive health dashboard to track your results. Include a 20-minute nutritionist consultation for personalized recommendations you can implement immediately.

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The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.