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Sports Drinks: The good, the bad and the ugly....

Due to recent events in my family, I was compelled to answer questions and hopefully provide some insights into electrolyte drinks.

First, let's talk electrolytes. Examples of electrolytes are potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium. They help your body maintain it's balance and many systems run using these various elements. For example, a muscle contraction/relaxation requires all of the listed electrolytes in some form or fashion. Most electrolytes are consumed in your food but the every popular sports drinks are loaded with them as well.

So do you need to supplement your electrolytes? Short answer, no. But really it depends.

You lose electrolytes in heavy exercise (longer than 60 minutes), extreme heat and humidity, or wearing improper clothing to make yourself sweat excessively. Age, gender and diet all play a role as well; and if you are sick and losing fluids such as with gastrointestinal issues.

If you do not meet the criteria of working out for greater than an hour or spending lots of time in heat and humidity, then you don't need the sports drink. You just need water to rehydrate yourself as your electrolytes will be replenished through what you eat. A banana has 442mg of potassium, where as a potato (with peel) has 620mg of potassium. (Compare that to 50mg in Gatorade per 12oz)

Is it okay to drink the sports drinks just because you like them? Your call.

The greatest downfall of these sports drinks is sugar. The amount of sugar in these drinks is near equivalent to drinking sodas; and the main electrolyte is sodium which most Americans easily consume enough of during a meal. So you are consuming a lot of sugar and calories without really any added benefit.

But what about the "zero" versions that have no calories or added sugar?

It still tastes sweet because artificial sweetener has been added in. If you have any sensitivities to artificial sweetener, then best to avoid. The research to me, so far, is not convincing that artificial sweetener is harmful. However, moderation is key. The electrolyte content does not drastically change zero vs full sugar.

There is no need for more than 8-12 ounces of sports drink added to a diet for the majority of outside activity. Personally, I drink one a day on days I work-out because it is typically an hour and typically intense. AND because that tends to be fluid I won't consume otherwise. I wish I could say I would replace that with water but I just wouldn't drink that much. I want to consume enough fluid to stay hydrated so the flavor of a sports drink encourages me to drink more. I shy away from the regular, full sugar flavors because that one full sugar drink knocks out the benefits of my work-out and is equivalent to eating a bowl of ice cream. (Between the two, I want the ice cream)

There are also better alternatives than Powerade and Gatorade. For example, Body Armor has so much more to offer. Body Armor Lyte has 700mg of potassium compare to 35mg in Powerade Zero. Body Armor Lyte has 40mg of sodium compared to 150mg in Powerade Zero. Just those numbers only should make you switch! But Body Armor also offers lots of Vitamins including B vitamins. There are also tablets that make it easy to ad electrolytes to your water bottle with brands such as Nuun.

The Bottom Line: Drink plenty of water. Outside or not, working out or not. Consider drinking a MINIMUM of 80 ounces of liquid a day. To take that a step further...The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is:

  • About 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids for men = 124 ounces

That's a least 7 water bottles or a near a gallon

  • About 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women = 92 ounces

Get 5 and 1/2 water bottles

This includes all fluid though- so count your coffee, sodas and sports drinks.

If you have worked out hard, spend several hours outside and had excessive sweating, then by all means, have a Powerade or better yet Body Armor. But if you or your kid ran around for 30 minutes in 80 degree weather, skip the sports drink and go for water!

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