Sports and Energy Drinks: Are They Necessary?

Sports Drinks

New sports drinks and energy beverages are making their way to the market every day. They offer enticing flavors like "blackberry pomegranate" and "blueberry acai." These drinks claim to make you perform better, help keep you hydrated, and even improve your health. But, are these beverages really necessary?


About Sports Drinks


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Sports drinks were made specifically to help high-level athletes re-hydrate during long workouts. Their formula was designed to replace water and minerals lost when sweating heavily. They generally contain electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, carbohydrates, and water.


There are new formulations that contain half the calories or are enhanced with vitamins. Some are even marketed as "recovery" drinks and contain protein.


Behind the Label


Now for a closer look - what are these beverages really?


The main ingredients are often glucose, fructose, sucrose, or high-fructose corn syrup, all of which are code for sugar. Many of these contain as much sugar as a can of regular soda! And for those marketed as zero calorie or reduced calorie, they will contain ingredients such as aspartame and sucralose. These are artificial sweeteners that do not provide calories, but may not be beneficial for your health.


The general rule of thumb is: if you are exercising heavily for longer than an hour, you may benefit from a sports drink to help replace carbohydrates and electrolytes. You need one 20oz bottle of sports drink for every hour you exercise, starting in the second hour. If you are not exercising this long, all you really need is water.


Vitamin Water


What about vitamin waters? Many of these are essentially the same thing as sports drinks, but with many vitamins added. If you are not eating a balanced diet, these extra vitamins from the "waters" may be beneficial; however if you are eating a well-balanced diet then all you are really getting from these drinks is more sugar or artificial sweeteners. Beware of flavors such as "acai" or "pomegranate," these are usually just flavorings and not the actual fruit; therefore they will not provide the beneficial antioxidants unless that actual food is listed under the ingredients on the food label.


Energy Drinks


Energy drinks are generally loaded with caffeine and even more sugar than sports drinks. For example, one common energy drink contains as much sugar as two glazed donuts. Some energy drinks contain herbals that claim to help enhance alertness or help in relaxation, however the evidence is minimal. While caffeine will make you more alert and can even improve athletic performance, it can also be dangerous for some people. Energy drinks should be avoided or used with caution.


The Bottom Line


What if you like the taste of sports drinks or energy drinks, it is okay to drink them in moderation? The extra sugar these drinks contain can add to your waist line and can cause serious harm to your health. The zero calorie options are better in this case. The bottom line: weigh the risks and benefits every time you reach for one of these beverages. Do your health a favor and instead drink a glass of ice cold water!


UW Health's Registered Dietitians provide accurate, evidence-based nutrition information that promotes health and wellness to empower individuals to make healthy lifestyle changes that will enhance their health. Recommendations may vary based on your individual health history. For a personalized nutrition plan contact UW Health to schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. For more nutrition information, visit the Nutrition and Health Library.