Sports drinks provide the body with fluid, carbohydrates, and electrolytes.
First, let’s make sure we are thinking about the same types of drinks when we use the term "sports drinks". By sports drinks, I’m referring to Gatorade, Accelerade, Powerade, Propel, and the like.
When you are in the grocery store and see the labels on some sports drinks you may be confused into thinking it’s something you would benefit from consuming. The variety of health benefits claimed can include such things as improved health and more energy.
When sports drinks we initially created, the whole point was to provide athletes the replacement fluid, electrolytes, and macronutrients (ie carbohydrates) they need to perform long term bouts of exercise optimally.
So think about that"¦.do you perform long duration exercise where you want to replace carbohydrates burned? If you are like the average American or individual fighting heart disease, your goal is to lose weight. Replacing the calories you burn is not part of the ideal plan to achieve your goals.
In most cases, water is going to be enough for you to replace lost fluid during activity and keep core body temperature to an appropriate level.
Now, for workouts lasting more than 60 minutes, sports drinks do contain some nutrients that can be of value.
I’m going to include carbohydrates in this list, so we can differentiate for athletes versus you. When working out, your muscles utilize glycogen. Muscle glycogen levels are limited and become depleted. How quickly levels are depleted depend on exercise intensity and duration. Many sports drinks contain 10 to 20 grams (40 to 80 calories) of carbohydrates per 8 ounce serving. This is a 6 to 8% carbohydrate concentration. Due to high fluid losses during high intensity/duration activities you do not want the carbohydrate concentration to exceed 8% which can delay gastric emptying and lead to gastrointestinal issues.
As an FYI, soft drinks and energy drinks typically contain carbohydrate concentrations above 10%.
As I mentioned above, your goal is not necessarily to replace carbohydrates burned via the carbohydrates in sports drinks. However, there are now low calorie sports drinks on the market that also provide some of the below nutrients which may be beneficial to you.
Sodium is an electrolyte and the one we tend to focus on most in regards to exercise since it is lost through sweating. It’s worth noting that everyone does not sweat at the same rate, which means everyone does not lose the same "volume" of electrolytes during the same intensity and duration activity. If sodium losses are too great due to perspiration or if water intake is so high that sodium levels are diluted, hyponatremia is a concern. Some symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle weakness, and fatigue.
If you select a sports drink, one containing 20 to 30 mmol/L of sodium is desirable to replenish electrolytes. Other electrolytes sports drinks may contain include potassium, calcium, and magnesium. (As an FYI, these are three key minerals when it comes to lowering blood pressure levels.)
Some sports drinks have added B vitamins due to their role in energy metabolism. The benefit of this addition is debatable.
Mostlikely, no. If you are not a performance athlete, sports drinks are will provide unnecessary calories/carbohydrates and you’d be better off with water to replenish fluid losses. However, there are always exceptions. It is summer and temperatures can be high. If you are outside for long durations performing manual labor, you may need the replacement electrolytes and even carbohydrates contained in a sports drink. In these cases a sports drink is going to be a better option than a soft drink to stay hydrated and promote optimal health.
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