Will sports drinks make you athletic or obese?

Plain water is sufficient (photo: USAG-Humphreys via Flickr)

The important role of nutrition in supporting sports performance is in the spotlight, thanks to the 2012 Olympics.  People watching Olympics competitions will be bombarded with messages about beverages and foods that supposedly enhance performance and boost fitness.  Unfortunately, for most people, all these specialized products aren’t particularly helpful, and in some cases are not recommended at all.

Take sports drinks.  A recent report, Consumption of Sports Drinks by Children and Adolescents, includes plenty of discouraging statistics:

  • Childrens’ consumption of sugar sweetened beverages has increased from 204 calories/day to 224 calories/day since 1994.  Sports drinks are sweetened with sugar.
  • Sports drinks are marketed to children and parents as a “healthy” alternative to soda pop.
  • Adolescents most like to drink sports drinks are most likely to be inactive males who say they drink sports drinks to boost energy and sports performance.  Go figure.
  • Sports drinks contain sodium, since they were originally intended as a rehydration beverage for trained athletes.
  • Very few children or adolescents do enough physical exercise to require speciality rehydration products like sports drinks.  The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that plain water is sufficient for children, along with a balanced diet.

The irony is that a drink peddled as “healthy”, using glamorous images of sweaty muscular athletes could actually be contributing to the child obesity epidemic.  Meanwhile a report in the British Medical Journal has nothing good to say about sports drinks, even for adults.  The report suggests that the sports drink industry is focused more on marketing hype than hard science.  The idea that hydration is some kind of global emergency has no basis in fact.  Before sports drinks were invented to fix this so-called problem, long distance runners were actually discouraged from drinking anything during a race, based on the belief that having fluid in the stomach would slow them down.

Now organizations like the Gatorade Sports Science Institute conduct research to support sports drink industry.  Clearly highly trained athletes who sweat a lot while competing in endurance events need to replace water and sodium.  The average couch potato does not.  Nor will drinking those beverages make the couch potato, or even the recreational gym enthusiast, fitter and more muscular.  Fitness, endurance and muscle strength don’t come in a plastic bottle; they come from training and proper nutrition.  If you’re trying to control your weight, sugary beverages should be the first item on your hit list.

 

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