How do you choose the right sports drink?
Do you go with a name brand that’s been around for decades, or do you go with what your favorite athlete chooses?
If you’re a LeBron fan, you’ll be reaching for a bottle of Powerade. If you’re more of an NFL fan, then you might go with Gatorade, the league’s official drink.
But when it comes to your health, who endorses which drink and/or your allegiance to one beverage isn’t always the best way to judge which one is most beneficial.
Because these drinks were designed for specific types of athletes who follow strict workout schedules, the average person has to take a little caution when they add one of these beverages to their workout routine.
Factors like sugar content, electrolyte levels and your personal diet apart from sports drinks are all important factors in dictating which drink is best for you.
So, we’ve created a list of sports drinks you should buy, other post-workout drinks you should avoid and a special section on what side-effects you should anticipate.
Say Yes to These Three Drinks: Powerade Zero, Original Gatorade, Water
Before we get to our top-three choices for sports drinks, we want to do a quick review.
First, drinks like Gatorade were created for elite athletes who were training once or twice a day for longer than an hour at a time. The intense workouts these athletes endured were sapping the energy in their muscles (glycogen) and sucking the electrolytes (sodium, potassium, etc.) out of their body.
So, Gatorade, Powerade and other drinks include carbohydrates that are converted into muscle energy (sugar) and electrolytes (sodium, potassium) to help regulate your body’s fluid and muscle function.
Second, most of us don’t fall in the category of “elite athlete”, or even athletes who work out more than once a day. In fact, a 2012 article in the Washingtonian said that the average American spends two hours exercising every week.
Take these two points into consideration as you think about what you drink before, during or after a workout. If you work out for 30 or 45 minutes at a time and most of your workout is cardio, there’s a really good chance all you’ll need is water.
If You’re Not Doing Intense Workouts
Powerade Zero (20-oz. bottle): 0 g Sugar, 250 mg Sodium, 60 mg Potassium
We’ve put this drink on the list for one simple reason: it has no sugar.
For us, that’s a big deal for a couple of reasons. First off, getting more sugar than you need is a bad thing for your body. It can increase your weight, decrease your good cholesterol, increase your bad cholesterol, hurt your memory and lead to heart disease.
Second, the average person taking in too much sugar after a workout usually doesn’t burn it off.
“The average person taking in too much sugar after a workout usually doesn’t burn it off.”
Remember how we said that your body converts carbohydrates into glycogen, the fuel that your muscles use to get through a workout? Well, if you’re working out twice a day, pounding a bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade (nearly as much sugar as a can of Coke) isn’t as bad of an idea because the carbs in that drink will be burned later in the day.
You pound the drink, your body converts it into fuel and then you head back to the gym in a few hours to use up that fuel, says dietician Jenn Christman.
But if you’re the average person working out for two hours a week, chances are that sugar isn’t going to be used as fuel and will just sit in your body and make you gain weight.
“If you are doing a long workout with a lot of sweat loss, it’s not a bad idea to drink an electrolyte replacement beverage,” Jenn says. “They have a good taste because of the sugar, and they have the sodium and potassium to replace what you lose in sweat. But, remember, it’s designed for people who have long workouts.”
She also recommends athletes who are doing longer workouts should find a beverage that has about 50-70 carbohydrates per cup.
“If you don’t have enough carbs, you are going to be dragging,” she said.
So, while we’d discourage the average person from drinking a sugar-laden hydration drink, we wouldn’t say the same thing for an elite athlete. Now, let’s bring this back to Powerade Zero.
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You probably don’t need to guzzle down the 30-40 grams of sugar that popular sports drinks pack into their beverages, so the ideal situation for you would be to find a drink that doesn’t have a bunch of carbs but replenishes your body’s fluids and injects some electrolytes into your system.
The answer? Powerade Zero and similar products, because it doesn’t have any sugar but still offers sodium and potassium, two excellent electrolytes. The average weekend warrior can replace their fluids and electrolytes without sucking down sugar that will go unused.
Marie Spano, a nutritionist for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, gave zero-calorie drinks the thumbs up.
“For the average person, drink water or a low-calorie sports drink. The benefit of a low-calorie drink is that you’re replacing your sodium,” she said. “Get something that tastes good and you’ll tend to drink more than water.”
(Marie’s opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlanta Hawks or the NBA.)
If You’re Doing Multiple Workouts in One Day
Original Gatorade (20-oz. bottle): 35 g Sugar, 267 mg Sodium, 75 mg Potassium
We really want to be clear here – the sugary version of Gatorade is designed for athletes doing intense workouts, sometimes two and three times in the same day. The huge chunks of sugar in these drinks are meant to build up glycogen to be used again before the effect wears off in four or five hours.
“The sugary version of Gatorade is designed for athletes doing intense workouts.”
“At an hour or more of exercise at a decent intensity, carbs will make you feel better,” Marie Spano says. “You’ll get tired if you don’t have the carbs, so definitely buy either a regular-calorie or low-calorie sports drink, but not a no-calorie one.”
For those of you who are worried about drinking too many carbs, remember this: the reason those carbs are in there is to get you through your workout, as Marie pointed out. If you aren’t working out, the carbs are pretty much useless.
“Even if you’re concerned about trying to lose weight, I think it’s much better to have carbs and have a great workout than not have carbs and have a terrible workout,” Marie says.
If You’re Not Lifting Weights and Not Sweating Much
Water: 0 g of Sugar, No Electrolytes
Yes, it’s true. Water has stood the test of time and research to emerge as the best choice for weekend warriors who hop on the elliptical or stationary bike for 30 minutes a few times a week.
Both Jenn Christman and Marie Spano said that water and a balance diet should provide you all you need to get through a workout that isn’t high-intensity and doesn’t include weightlifting.
We admit that water is a boring choice compared to the sugar-infused, flavor-packed bottles of sports drinks you’re used to seeing. If you absolutely need something flavored in your workout regimen, then we suggest trying Vitaminwater or Propel, two drinks with low sugar content.
Say No to These Drinks: Fruit Juice, Energy Drinks, Soda
Tackling the subject of what mainstream sports drinks are the best and worst is a tough one because every product claims to be different, but, in reality, it’s a matter of which drinks have electrolytes and carbohydrates.
And you’ll find most mainstream drinks have plenty of both (not including the low-calorie and sugar-free drinks).
So, telling you which drinks you shouldn’t have isn’t so much about splitting hairs in the sports-drink world, but weeding out other drinks you might be tempted to use for re-hydration.
First on this list of drinks you shouldn’t consume after a workout is fruit juice. Most juices, whether concentrate, “fresh-squeezed” or organic, contain tons of sugar. For example, a cup of orange juice has more sugar than a cup of soda.
And remember, when it comes to the way your body responds to sugar, there’s not much difference between sugar from fruit, soda or spoonfuls of white sugar. Here’s what registered dietician Joy Dubost told Huffington Post about this very issue:
“Whether it’s in a piece of fruit, your soda or a pastry, sugar is made up of the same two components: fructose and glucose. The molecular structure and composition of sugar molecules is the same no matter where they come from.”
Obviously, fruit juice and soda are totally different; drinking the sweet nectar of an orange offers you vitamins you can’t get from a Mountain Dew. And you might be thinking, if a cup of orange juice has about the same amount of sugar as a soda or Gatorade, why not drink it after workout?
The answer here is pretty simple: because most of us won’t do exercise later in the day to burn off the carbohydrates (sugar) in your drink. The same rules for juice apply to sugary soda: Stay away!
Our final recommendation for what not to drink is energy drinks. They boast some pretty impressive ingredients – Red Bull has high amounts of B vitamins, as do other drinks – but their purpose is to give you energy, not to help you hydrate or recover from a workout.
Side Effects You Should Think About Before Adding Sports Drinks to Your Life
Let’s take a moment to think back to the amount of sugar contained in one 20-oz bottle of Gatorade – as much as a soda. Now, imagine a bunch of 10-year-olds pounding a couple of sodas after a football or soccer game. Sounds crazy, right? That’s because it is, and we think it all goes back to why sports drinks were created in the first place.
Too Much Sugar Causes All Kinds of Problems
The levels of sugar, potassium and sodium contained in a bottle of Powerade or Gatorade are designed for high-performance athletes, not grade-schoolers romping around a soccer field. Your kid might sweat pretty good after a late-afternoon game, but are they sweating as much as a collegiate football player during blazing hot two-a-day practices? Not even close.
So, we’d suggest keeping your kids away from sugary sports drinks. In fact, we’d also shy away from giving them low-calorie or no-calorie sports drinks since they employ artificial sweeteners to make their drinks taste better.
Now, we don’t want to step on your toes, but consider foregoing all these specialized, brightly colored drinks and stick with water and a few orange slices. Cutting up some citrus and filling drink bottles with water could help curb childhood obesity; a 2012 article from The Atlantic points out that some researchers think the emergence of sports drinks has helped increase obesity rates among children.
Based on our conversations with nutritionists and sports scientists, the average person (and kid) only needs water if they’ve got a balanced diet. There’s no sense in giving your kids or yourself added sugar if all you need is H2O.
Too Many Colors
We’ve talked about the rainbow of colors you see when you enter the sports drink aisle. If you’re someone who prefers to consume foods and drinks that don’t have a lot of chemicals in them, then consider avoiding Gatorade, Powerade and the like.
A 2012 Forbes article does an excellent job talking about the history of food coloring. Basically, over the past 100 years or so, the number of food colorings allowed by the FDA has decreased. The big purge came in 1903 with the Pure Food and Drugs Act:
“In general terms, the law banned artificial colors that proved ‘injurious to health’ … The next three decades saw a process of eliminating colors that caused recurrent adverse health effects in the public. By 1938, only 15 synthetic colors were still legal.”
Fast forward 70 years later to 2008, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to remove all artificial dyes from food. They believed that food dyes caused behavioral problems in children, and two years later, they released a study showing that data.
Here’s a portion of the summary text of that study:
“Food dyes, synthesized originally from coal tar and now petroleum, have long been controversial. Many dyes have been banned because of their adverse effects on laboratory animals. This report finds that many of the nine currently approved dyes raise health concerns.”
If you don’t want dyes in your drinks because you’re worried about the side effects of drinking them, we say avoid them and stick with water.
Closing the Lid on Sports Drinks: Conclusions
It’s really hard to say that an $8 billion industry isn’t really necessary, but that’s what our research and the opinions of our experts lead us to believe.
Sports drinks contain electrolytes and carbohydrates intended to refuel your body between workouts, which make a lot of sense if you’re an elite athlete who lifts weights in the morning and practices or competes at night.
However, if you’re just the average American who works out two hours a week, then water is your best bet. You don’t need to buy sports drinks to hydrate yourself; water works fine, and whatever carbs or protein you need should already exist in your diet.
So here’s our plan of attack for the various types of people who work out:
- If you need to replace fluids and electrolytes, go with a zero-calorie choice like Powerade Zero. It gives you the electrolytes you need without the sugar.
- If you need to fuel up after a workout so you can prepare for the next one, any of the Original Gatorade flavors will do. They give you the electrolytes you need in the short term and the added carbs for four or five hours down the road.
- If you don’t work out hard and you don’t sweat a lot, drink water. Hydration is your main need, and water meets that need.
The side effects of sports drinks haven’t been precisely pinned down by researchers. However, the nutrition experts we spoke with made it clear that products like Gatorade and Powerade are designed for elite athletes who can burn off the sugars.
Kids most likely won’t burn off that sugar, and they tend not to work out so strenuously that they need anything besides water and a snack to recover from their practice or game. And when you throw food dyes in the mix, we’ve got all the more reason to believe that kids and adults should steer clear of the rainbow of choices in favor of water.
At this point, you might be thinking, “All this information is great, but what about protein shakes and recovery drinks?” That’s a fantastic question and we’ve tackled it in another article about recovery drinks. We explore why chocolate milk has become the trendy recovery drink, as well as comparing chocolate milk to recovery beverage Muscle Milk.
Chocolate milk? Yes, you heard us right. The drink is the official recovery beverage of America’s Olympic swim team and it’s becoming more and more popular as a post-workout guzzler. Click here to find out why.
More on Fitness:
- Common Sports Injuries: Your Guide to How They Happen & Best Ways to Prevent Them
- What is CrossFit: Your Comprehensive Guide to High-Impact Interval Training