Have you recently walked down the sideline of a sporting event to see bottles upon bottles of multicolored, fluorescent, sugar-filled drinks? If you believe the commercials and hype, it would seem those drinks are the lifeblood of any youth or adult sporting event. We are told by multiple authorities, sponsored athletes, and corporations that we are not drinking enough and dehydration is lurking around the corner. With this constant mantra of “drink more and fuel more,” we cannot trust our bodies to tell us when we need to drink.
Did you know that the bottled water industry initially started the recommendations of eight glasses of water per day? This water intake recommendation was never backed by research and is simply not true for the vast majority of the population. What is true is that we should drink according to our thirst. Our body is much more adaptive to varying conditions of temperature and humidity than we give ourselves credit.
We have all been told we must drink eight glasses of water a day to stay well hydrated, but the sports drink industry also wants you to think that water isn’t good enough; i.e., that water doesn’t have the electrolytes or the “fuel” our body needs to perform at its maximum level. Many of these claims originated from industry advertisers, who started the chant decades ago.
This even appears to be the case for endurance athletes who compete in marathons and triathlons. Studies on endurance athletes show the winners of most endurance events are often the most dehydrated. Our bodies have plenty of sodium and fuel to exercise for several hours without running out of either. If you can taste salt when you are sweating, then you have plenty of sodium left in you.
If we don’t need the sodium in sports drinks, then we must need the sugar, right?
Doesn’t the body perform better when you supplement with sugar before and throughout exercise? The difficulty with this question is the studies looking at this are funded by the sports drink industry and are usually designed for a positive result. (When was the last time you saw any pharmaceutical or nutritional supplement publish a negative result?) If you take trained athletes that are sugar-adapted and have them fast for 12 hours, then put them on stationary bikes in a controlled lab without airflow, not only will it look like they need 1.2 L of fluid per hour, but when you give them sugar they also perform better. These conditions completely ignore real-world activities.
The sports drink industry also decided that endurance athletes were not a big enough target group – they decided to target children and sedentary adults. The American Heart Association recommends children only get 12 g of added sugar daily; an eight-ounce serving of Gatorade Perform 02 has 14 g of added sugar. Most bottles of Gatorade are 20 to 32 ounces. That is a whopping 35 g to 56 g of sugar per bottle!
It is no wonder that Americans are becoming more obese and have higher incidences of heart disease and diabetes than ever before. Let’s give our kids a fighting chance at a healthy future by being mindful of added sugar, using common sense, and listening to our own body.
So the next time you or your kids are out getting exercise, grab a nice cold glass of tap water, and drink when you are thirsty.
References: Information in this article was partially taken from a column in the British Medical Journal
(The Truth about Sports Drinks, BMJ 2012;345:e4737) and Tim Noakes, PhD new book Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports.
Dr. Volney Willett is a Family Physician at CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson Medical Clinic. He sees patients of all ages, and has a special interest in food and nutrition. He can be reached for an appointment by calling 701-456- 4200.