Sports drinks are popular. You see them in convenience stores, fast food chains, and grocery stores alongside pop, vitamin-enhanced waters, and other sugary drinks. Many people think these drinks are healthy. They’re called “sports drinks” so they must be good for active people, right? Not necessarily.
With summer fast approaching, it’s important to stay hydrated, but choosing the healthiest drink option for you and your kids can be confusing. Read on to get answers to some common questions about sports drinks.
What’s in a sports drink and why?
Sports drinks are mostly made of water, sugar, salt, and colourings. In 700 mL (one standard bottle) of sports drink, there are about 10 cubes of sugar. Keep in mind that sports drinks are not the same as energy drinks, which contain large amounts of caffeine.
Sugar (aka carbohydrates): Your body breaks food down into sugar, which gives your brain and muscles energy. Muscles store energy for when you need it. When you’re active, your body uses these stores. Someone doing moderate physical activity, like going for a short run or taking a fitness class, is unlikely to run out of energy stores. On the other hand, competitive athletes can run out of energy stores (often called “hitting the wall”), which can affect an athlete’s performance.
If your goal is general health or weight loss as opposed to athletic performance you won’t need to refuel with a sports drink. In this case, all these sports drinks do is add extra sugar and calories to your day.
Salt: During physical activity, people can sweat a lot. If you’ve ever tasted your own sweat, you know it’s salty! Salt and other electrolytes (like potassium) are only needed during long workouts where sweat losses are high, like in hot and humid environments. For people who don’t sweat or sweat minimally, you don’t need salt in your activity drink.
When are sports drinks needed?
As a general rule, water is the best choice when exercising or playing a sport for less than an hour. You may benefit from a sports drink if you do endurance activities like running or cycling, or high intensity sports like hockey or rugby for more than an hour. In these cases, aim for approximately 30-45g of carbohydrates per hour of intense physical activity (check the nutrition label on your drink). This works out to about 500-750 mL of sports drink per hour.
Competitive athletes who work out at a high intensity or for long periods of time need extra energy (carbohydrates) and minerals (salt and potassium) to support their muscle function and to maintain athletic performance. Sports drinks were designed for competitive athletes as an easy source of energy, electrolytes, and fluid.
Should my child have sports drinks?
Children are better off having water during activity. Less is best when it comes to sugary drinks like sports drinks. These add extra calories and sugar, which can cause weight gain and increase the chance of tooth decay.
Does my teen need sports drinks?
Teens should make sure they are well hydrated before they start any activity, and that they have easy access to water throughout their sport. If your teen is a competitive athlete, training at a high level, the use of sports drinks may offer some benefits by providing extra energy and fluid.
The final word: For the majority of people, water is the best choice to stay hydrated. Sports drinks are expensive and in most cases not needed. Also, having a healthy snack before your activity can give you the energy you need. Check out these tips to help you and your family make healthy drink choices all summer long.
If you have unanswered questions, call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1 or send an email to speak with a registered dietitian for free.
Author’s Bio: Liz Powell is a dietetic intern currently completing her internship with the Provincial Health Services Authority. She has always had a passion for teaching and working with kids, as well as a love for all things food and nutrition related. Throughout her career, she hopes to help people fall [back] in love with food, and to help them see food as a benefit to overall health and well-being.