Performance Sports Drink: What is the Importance of Water?

Advertising works, with sports & fitness near the top of industries influenced. The rise of  the performance sports drink is a case study in marketing success.

You can’t go anywhere in todays’ society that involves some level of physical fitness (and many that don’t….) and not notice a sea of bottles containing brilliantly colored performance sports drinks, energy drinks and bottled water.  The smart ones likely have tea in BPA free sports bottles.

Frighteningly, the presence of the brilliantly colored sports drinks seem ubiquitous among youth and high school sports.  The extent of this may be reflected on a comment from a 14 year old boy in my neighborhood.  When I questioned why on Earth would he be drinking sugar free Red Bull, he replied that it was heavily promoted by his soccer coach since he was 12.  UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!  Can’t find a much better way to program a child for diabetes than that.

So what about the reality of the health benefits of sports drinks?  Don’t they prevent athletes and kids playing XBox from dropping dead of dehydration?

In short, no.

This particular article is likely one of the best reviews I have ever seen on the topic of hydration and sports drinks and the reality behind them.

So what does the science say?

  • One literature review in a nephrology (kidney) journal found there is no evidence that “consumption of sports drinks (electrolyte-containing hypotonic fluids) can prevent the development of exercise associated hyponatraemia (low sodium).”
  • Studies done on cyclists actually found that relying on thirst rather than drinking at set intervals led to better performance.
  • In regards to preventing heat exhaustion, Sandy Fowkes-Godek, director of the HEAT Institute and a professor of sports medicine at West Chester University, has conducted dozens of studies on NFL players and failed to show that dehydration has any effect on core temperature. “It’s a scare tactic that has worked very well,” she says, “We don’t understand what causes exertional heat stroke.”

So how did the sports drink phenomena start?  Think Gatorade.  Powerade.  Lucozade.

Are you really ready for the answer?

GlaxoSmithKline (Lucozade) and Quaker Oats (Gatorade) basically developed the science and used money to promote it aggressively.  And it worked.

They promoted the idea that we should “drink before thirsty” so aggressively that now anyone would be crazy to wait until they are actually thirsty before they take a drink.  In my son’s 1 hour karate class, they take at least 2 breaks to get a drink of water.  As if some child would drop dead of dehydration in a typical karate class.

The process went much deeper and the money and influence of industry continues to guide “recommendations” even today:

  • The 2007 American College of Sports Medicine recommendations: Three of the six authors of the updated guidance declared major financial conflicts of interest, with ties to Gatorade, Coca-Cola and GSK.  On other member had no personal financial ties, but her institution, the AIS, received funding from Gatorade. The other two authors worked for the US military and had attended the exclusive Quaker Oats meetings in the 1990s.

So what does all this mean?

It means that the multi million dollar industry of performance sports drink was largely created and propagated by industry.  There is no evidence that they prevent dehydration better than water, no evidence that they protect against heat stroke, no evidence that they protect against a dangerous loss of sodium and no evidence that they increase sports performance.

And this is in athletes.  In sedentary individuals and athletes who are not training  are drinking a performance sports drink, it is nothing but calories to make us fatter.  For the vast majority of us they should be avoided.

The logical alternative would be rehydrating with water, but, as I have Ranted about again and again, make sure you are careful to avoid BPA laden plastic water bottles, which have been shown to promote obesity and diabetes.

What is your favorite way to hydrate while exercising?

James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.