Do we ever really need a sports drink?

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by Kaetlin Zink & Rachael Ling

It’s not uncommon for athletes and non-athletes alike to drink sports drinks for hydration. Seems like an appropriate pairing, right? The term “sports drinks” itself even hints at the occasion in which we’re meant to drink them. But do you ever wonder how this transition from water to sports drinks as a primary choice for hydration came about?

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The History of the Sports Drink Industry

Gatorade, one of the most popular types of sports drinks, was first introduced in the 1960’s for the University of Florida Gators football team. They found that these athletes were losing electrolytes and fluid with exertion but not replenishing them. Gatorade was developed to replace these crucial electrolytes and carbohydrates lost during exercise while providing hydration at the same time.

According to the British Medical Journal, “It started life as a simple mixture of kitchen foodstuffs, like water, sugar, salt, and lemon flavoring.” Fast-forward to 2018, and we see that sports drinks, in general, have become big business, with the industry now dominated by multinational companies like Pepsi and drug companies like GSK. By 2021, the market worth of sports drinks is expected to reach almost $6 billion, according to a Reuters report.

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Photo by Mike Mozart; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Sports drinks as we know them today contain ingredients far more complex than the original Gatorade recipe introduced to the market in the 60’s. Depending on the brand, they may contain a plethora of proposed athletic-enhancing vitamins, including electrolytes, sugar, caffeine, and even protein. For the sake and scope of this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of what may be unnecessary amounts of sugar and salt for your level of physical exertion.

To increase sales on a larger scale, sports drink makers have attempted to break the known association between drinking water for hydrational purposes, leading us to believe that sports drinks are the better option for full replenishment. In doing so, they influence the average gym-goer to consume sports drinks that were originally intended and formulated for competitive or endurance athletes.

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Sports drinks were originally intended for endurance athletes but have since become staples during lower-intensity activities or workouts.

A sports drink ad for Gatorade from 1980, for example, created in the 1980’s, uses misleading information to try and exaggerate the benefits of sports drinks while downplaying the effectiveness of water to promote their product. To directly quote the ad, “That’s why Gatorade was invented: to help put back what you lose. Better than soft drinks, juices or water.”

While we may not see this kind of direct or specific messaging about replacing water in current Gatorade advertising, it speaks to the groundwork they’ve laid in decades past that we’ve carried to today.

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So, what’s the big deal?

While replacing lost electrolytes and fueling during an intense bout of exercise may be ideal, stop and think for a moment: does your level of physical activity really warrant the number of calories (from sugar, to boot) you consume in just a 16-ounce bottle? Especially if your goal is to lose weight? A better option may be to stay hydrated via plain water and save the calories for quality food choices that support exertion and recovery from exercise.

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Consider whether your physical activity warrants the number of calories in a sports drink — namely from sugar.

According to the Berkeley study, most people who drink sports drinks at least once a day aren’t as physically active as they should be. To put things into perspective: A 20-ounce serving of Gatorade’s Thirst Quencher contains 36 grams of sugar. In fact, Berkeley researchers say the sugar in sports drinks may be contributing to the child obesity epidemic by increasing caloric intake that does not match energy expenditure. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine agree. Both only recommend the use of sports drinks for intense exercise lasting more than 60-90 minutes.

There is also a concern for overconsuming salt via sports drinks. In rare circumstances, such as with kidney disease or high blood pressure, there is a potential to take in too much salt via this route. According to researchers from Harvard Medical School, replacing water with a sports drink actually has the potential to cause more dehydration if we consume too much because of the high sugar and salt content via vomiting or diarrhea.

According to Registered Dietitian, Jeannie Versagli, drinking sports drinks even after such bouts of vomiting or diarrhea is not recommended because they will not provide the adequate ratio of electrolytes to appropriately rehydrate. “The best fluid replacement for all,” she says, “is Pedialyte, Ceralyte or Infalyte, which can be purchased at most grocery stores and or pharmacies.  These products have the appropriate amounts of electrolytes.”

With that said, however, there may be times when you are not able to replace electrolytes as fast as you are losing them, and a sports drink could be a great, convenient option. These instances would be prolonged activity in hot or humid environments for durations greater than 60-90 minutes. Ultimately, it’s like anything else: finding balance.


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