There is no denying that sports drinks – like Gatorade and Powerade – are a huge industry. In fact, it is estimated that by 2016 the industry will be worth over $2 billion dollars in the USA alone! But are sports drinks better than water? Sports drinks are portrayed as nutritional aids that will help improve performance and ensure optimum levels of hydration, but when you look beneath the surface and propaganda, a very different scenario emerges. It has long been known in medical circles that the claims made by sports drink companies have little merit and a recent article in the BMJ (the inspiration behind this article) highlighted this fact. Somehow, this information doesn’t seem to filter down to the people that really matter, the consuming public, and it is for this reason that I have chosen to write this article, as I believe the public has a right to make their own informed decision about what they buy and consume. So are sports drinks better than water?
In an era when health and exercise promotion are at the forefront, and the dangers of chronic disease such as obesity and diabetes are so well known, how is it that sports drinks companies are able to get away with falsely portraying their products as beneficial to both health and performance?
The answer, as always, lies in money. In case you were unaware, the major sports drinks companies are actually owned by some of the most powerful soft drink manufacturers in the world.
Gatorade – PepsiCo
Powerade – Coca-Cola
Lucozade – GlaxoSmithKline
This fact alone should already be causing alarm bells to ring. The fact that these companies have huge wealth is dangerous enough, as it allows them to spend large sums on advertising and shaping public opinion. However, what is more scary is that they have gone several steps too far! Through their wealth and economic dominance they have managed to infiltrate the organizations that we look to for advice and guidance when it comes to what is best for us in terms of sporting performance and health.
By this point you may be a bit skeptical, thinking that this is just a witch hunt, but sadly it is all true. I encourage you to check the facts in this article for yourself and I assure you that they are all true. Are sports drinks better than water and are they beneficial at all?
To understand how the notion that sports drinks are beneficial came about, we need to go back a few decades. Before sports drinks were invented, athletes had little concern about exactly what they drank during exercise or their levels of hydration and had no issues performing at a very high level. There was little money to be made servicing elite athletes so no real effort was made.
However, this all changed around about the seventies and eighties. Suddenly the public was developing a huge interest in road running and recreational sport, with more and more people getting involved year after year. The sports industry quickly took notice of this growing market and immediately began to develop ways to capitalize. This was easy for shoe or clothing manufacturers as people clearly needed these things, but the drinks industry faced a bit of a different challenge.
The challenge was to convince people to buy something they already had free access to (fluid), and in larger quantities than they actually needed. “Impossible” or “Immoral” you may say. Immoral, yes, but impossible, far from. You may have heard statements like
“If you are thirsty, it is too late, you are already dehydrated”
“You need to replace electrolytes lost through sweating or you will experience cramps or a sharp drop in performance”
These comments have been passed around by so many people (coaches, personal trainers, and the public) that they are now just considered to be true. The fact of the matter however is that these ideas were created by the sports drink companies to make you think that you need to drink regularly during exercise and make sure that your drinks contain electrolytes. So how did the sports drink industry manage to perpetuate such a myth? (I will explain why it is a myth shortly).
They did so by infiltrating organizations the public thought were credible as well as creating their own organizations. These organizations then advised the public to consume more sports drink by claiming it was necessary to prevent dehydration and improve performance. What is amazing is that people weren’t asking the simple question or are sports drinks better than water? They were instead just trusting and assumed they must be!
In 1992, the American College of Sports Medicine accepted a $250,000 donation from Gatorade. Four years later, they advised athletes to “Drink as much as is tolerable!” It took them until 2007 to admit that this was wrong and change their guidelines, but by this point most of the damage was already done.
In 2004, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) entered into a partnership with Gatorade, and the following year they began a research project into dehydration involving an AIS Gatoraid Fellow, Kelly Drew, claiming it was the reason their cricket team lost an important international competition (The Ashes).
The US National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) works closely with Gatorade and allows them to take out advertisements in their news sheets that look suspiciously like academic papers!
Lucozade and Gatorade both set up their own bodies:
Their intention was to scientifically endorse their own products and then stamp their insignia onto them to affirm scientific credibility! Obviously their answer to “are sports drinks better than water?” was going to be yes! This is no different to a beer company telling you that alcohol is good for you and is far from reputable.
So is there any truth to the hydration claims? – Are sports drinks better than water?
Bob Murray from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute claimed that “The human thirst mechanism is an inaccurate short-term indicator of fluid needs.”
Apart from the fact that this statement is based on no real evidence, it is also an outright lie. The human body is an incredible piece of equipment and has developed over hundreds of thousands of years to survive in all manner of environments. The mechanisms that control thirst are extremely complex and rely on multiple stimuli, such as blood volume and electrolyte concentrations, to determine its fluid status. When you think about it, to claim that the human body doesn’t even know when it should be thirsty is preposterous!
This has been backed by multiple studies, including a meta-analysis on professional cyclists (takes into account multiple studies), which concluded that relying on thirst to determine when to consume fluid was the best option.
Dehydration is not really linked to a reduction in performance when looking at exercising for under 60-90 minutes (depending on intensity) and you can become quite accustomed to exercising for this period of time without needing to constantly sip water. It may just take a few sessions to get used to.
On the flip side, drinking too much fluid (which can happen if you feel the need to drink continuously despite not being thirsty) can actually make you seriously ill and even kill you. A condition called hyponatremia can result from excessive fluid intake. It is often seen in events such as marathons where people are exercising for prolonged periods and upwards of 1600 serious cases have been reported.
Sports drinks are not all bad in that sipping them whilst exercising is no different from a hydration standpoint as sipping water. Drinking them to quench thirst is fine and they have a role here if people enjoy the taste or convenience, but people just need to be aware that they convey no real hydration benefit over water. Are sports drinks better than water for hydration? – No
How about the need to replace electrolytes?
One of the major selling points of sports drinks is the importance of replacing electrolytes that you lose through sweat. It has become common belief that a reduction in sodium or potassium levels can lead to all sorts of issues such as reduced performance or muscle cramps.
Again, as with hydration, this is an unsupported lie. The human body has plenty of electrolytes to get through a full day of high-level exercise, let alone a few hours, and there is no need to consume extra electrolytes. The belief that electrolytes help prevent cramping has been disproven time and time again, including in a recent study on Ironman Triathletes that concluded that dehydration and altered serum electrolyte levels are NOT causes for exercise associated muscle cramping.
Some companies (I’ll give you a clue – a popular manufacturer of cola) have gone as far as saying that hyponatremia is a result of the failure to “replace the sodium lost through sweat or drinking a very large volume of low-sodium beverages such as water.” What they cunningly forgot to mention is that hyponatraemia can also occur with the consumption of sports drinks and that there is no evidence that having sodium (salt) in the bottle is in any way beneficial.
Again, as with hydration, there is no real harm in using a sports drink over water from an electrolyte point of view as there is so little of it in the drink that supplementing with it will likely have no effect. Though, it is important that people do not feel they have to pay over the odds for something which they don’t actually need. Are sports drinks better than water at preventing electrolyte deficiency? – No
So what about the carbohydrate? Surely that must be beneficial?
This was the last chance for sports drinks to maintain a shred of credibility, but sadly along with the other ‘benefits,’ this is also unnecessary. When it comes to exercise, you have enough carbohydrate stored in your body to last for at least an hour of intense activity. Reduce this to a moderate level of activity (most recreational athletes and gym goers) and you can keep going for at least 90 minutes before you need any sugar. Having been an Ironman Triathlete myself, I have often done 90 minute training sessions on little more than a few sips of water and been absolutely fine.
A 500ml lucozade sports drink, for example, contains over 30g of carbohydrate (that is six teaspoons of sugar). That is the same as a can of Coke, so in fact, far from being healthy. A sports drink is nutritionally no different than having a can of soda. By marketing sports drinks as a nutritional supplement, people (including children) are being misled into believing they are healthy. This may further contribute to the obesity epidemic that we are already facing. On top of this, people who are exercising with the goal of weight loss are actually doing themselves more harm by drinking sports drinks as they may inadvertently gain weight if they aren’t careful.
Sports drinks do actually have a role in providing energy to athletes who are partaking in prolonged (over an hour) exercise sessions, and in such cases they can be a convenient way to consume necessary calories. But sadly, most of the people that are targeted by advertising fall outside of this group and do not need the sugar for their standard workouts. Are sports drinks better than water at ensuring you go longer? – Only if you’re going for over an hour.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you understand that sports drinks are far from what they claim to be. They offer no real benefits over water for the average user and in some instances may do more harm than good. The propaganda put out there by the sports drink companies has no real scientific credibility and their only aim is to sell you more drinks, no matter the consequence. Unless you are taking part in prolonged training sessions, the best thing you can do to help achieve your sporting goals is drink water when you are thirsty, it’s as simple as that!