Do you need a Sports Drink? Does anyone?

From well-known supermarket brands such as Gatorade and Powerade to more specialized brands like Heed and Cytomax, sports drinks are everywhere today.  Some are cheap and some cost a small fortune.  These companies spend millions on marketing with the goal of convincing us that they have discovered a magic potion to enhance hydration, performance or recovery.  Do you need these drinks?  Do your kids need them?  My answer is a resounding NO!

Consider these points as we delve into the details. This is a multibillion dollar industry backed by businesses whose interest is in making money.  Each positions their drink as something healthy, necessary, exciting and even sexy.  The goal is to differentiate their product from soft drinks, lemonade, sweetened tea and other caloric beverages. Are they really that different?
Sports drinks typically contain some sort of sweetener—usually sugar—artificial colors and flavors, and minerals like sodium and potassium.  Advertising focuses on these minerals or electrolytes and typically trades the word “sugar” for “energy”. The truth is, there is a lot of good solid evidence that the vast majority of the time, you are much better off reaching for plain water. 

Sports drinks also use scare tactics and misinformation. They talk of dehydration from sweating and loss of vital electrolytes.  While sweating does cause a loss of electrolytes, it takes a very long time and very extreme activity to cause a dangerous loss of sodium or potassium.  Most of us are not ultra-runners or cyclists in the Tour de France.  For activities lasting around an hour or less, dehydration can be avoided by having 8-16 ounces of water before the activity.  Replete lost fluids after the activity in the form of water and have a healthy snack. 

Over hydration is actually much more of a problem during recreational sports activities.  Having too much fluid on board, in the form of water or sports drink can over dilute the blood and lead to a dangerous drop in the concentration of electrolytes called hyponatremia or hypokalemia (low sodium or low potassium).  Research shows that sports drinks do not prevent this as they simply do not contain enough electrolytes to compensate for all of that extra fluid.  For this reason, experts recommend that people refrain by overconsuming fluids before or during activity.  It’s best to wait until after you are finished.  
While ultra-endurance athletes may benefit from sports drinks, these athletes typically consume electrolyte tablets and very specialized formulations. And many of them only do so when participating in activities that last several hours or more. Some do not consume specialized sports drinks at all, preferring to consume bananas, dates, salted potatoes, pretzels, oranges, fruit juices and water during events.

Children most certainly do NOT need sports drinks. It seems that sports drinks are peddled as good hydration for kids, whether they are in an athletic event or just running around in the back yard.  There are much better ways to manage hydration and nutrition.  If kids are out playing, they don’t need anything but water when they are thirsty.
I know that some children are quite athletic and spend the weekend participating in team sports.  Parents are rightfully concerned about proper nutrition and hydration, but I maintain that this can be easily managed without a sports drink.  Let me give you an example.  Your child is on a local soccer team.  They have two games on Saturday—one at 9:00 am and one at 2:00 pm.  It is June and it’s going to be hot and sunny.  Here is a sample nutrition plan that I would provide for a student athlete:

  • Have a good breakfast that is filling but not greasy or heavy.  Oatmeal with a berry banana smoothie is a great option, as is peanut butter toast with a bowl of mixed fruit and a small cup of orange juice.  Both options contain plenty of electrolytes.  Nearly all foods have a small amount of naturally occurring sodium and the fruits are full of potassium.  You get the SUPPOSED benefit of the sports drink with the REAL benefit of all the great nutrients contained in REAL FOOD.  Have a glass of water before you leave the house.  Bring a 16 oz. water bottle and orange slices.  
  • During the game, sip on the water bottle as needed.  At half-time have some orange slices. Make sure you have gone to the bathroom at least once since breakfast.  Your urine should be pale and straw colored but not totally clear while or dark amber.  If it is dark, drink some more water. 
  • After the game have a few pretzels with peanut butter, more fruit and some water. Eat something light around noon that is not very heavy or greasy. It should contain protein and carbohydrate while being low in fat.  Some good choices are hummus and pita bread, a sandwich or a wrap.  Veggies like lettuce and tomatoes have a lot of electrolytes so add those too.  Have a large glass of water with lunch and make sure you have gone to the bathroom again.
  • Before the second game, have a banana and some water if you are thirsty.  Drink according to thirst during the second game, having the orange slices at half time.
  • When the second game is over, drink more water and have a good nourishing early dinner.

There is absolutely no reason for people to guzzle sports drinks just because they are participating in an activity and it is hot out.  Don’t erase the health and fitness benefits with empty calories that offer no benefit.  Eat real food and drink water.  Ditching the sports drinks for good makes good nutritional sense!