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With all the money people spend buying into sports nutrition drinks it is worth asking the question ‘Is it really worth it?’

Are they what they are cracked up to be as true health supplements, and is it worth the money spent?

Sports nutrition drinks are generally straightforward combinations of water (often carbonated), glucose syrup, citric acid, lactic acid, assorted flavourings, preservatives (such as potassium sorbate and sodium bisulphate), caffeine, ascorbic acid and colourings. Electrolytes (minerals such as chloride, calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium) are key components.

There are three types of sports nutrition drinks on the market: isotonic, hypotonic and hypertonic. Isotonic drinks are designed to quickly replace the fluids lost by sweating as well as add a carbohydrate boost – i.e., much needed energy. Examples of an isotonic sports drink are Lucozade Sport, Boots Isotonic and HighFive. Hypotonic drinks also replace lost fluids quickly, but without the carb energy boost. Examples of these include Gatorade G2 and Powerade Zero. In fact, generally any water-down or ‘light’ sports drink will fit into this category. Hypertonic drinks are great for supplementing daily carbohydrate intake. It can also be used in conjunction with isotonic drinks to top up fluids lost during exercise. Lucozade Energy is one example.

There is some debate about whether sports drinks actually contribute to overall health. The Health Cloud (https://www.thehealthcloud.co.uk/ingredients-in-sports-drinks) looked at the ingredients in sports drinks and concluded that, although they “can help with prolonged exercise…they are not needed for the majority of sports. These drinks also contain a number of preservatives and other artificial chemicals in small quantities, and although they do not pose a significant health risk, they do not contribute to health in any way, and ideally would not be consumed at all.” A blog from Inside Tracker (https://www.insidetracker.com/blog/post/22217548736/sports-drinks-helpful-or-harmful#) gives an alternate opinion, stating “the sugar in sports drinks can be beneficial for people who are exercising more intensely or working out for longer periods of time. It can provide ready-to-use fuel for someone who is jogging for three hours or mountain biking.” It goes on to say that “if you are performing an intense level of exercise for over an hour, you may need to replace the carbohydrates that you burn during exercise and electrolytes that you lose through sweating. For intense exercise sessions, drink about 20 ounces of a sports drink for every hour that you exercise, starting after the first hour. For exercise events lasting longer than 1 hour, cold sports drinks containing 6%-8% carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium are of greater benefit than water alone, helping to replace the fluids lost from sweating. If your workouts are not that long, you’re probably fine with just drinking water.”

A Men’s Health article looking at sport drinks vs. water (http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-drink/sports-drinks-vs-water) came to the more categorical conclusion that water just does not hydrate as efficiently as sports drinks and, in a statement by US nutritionist Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, declares water “provides no sodium, which helps the body hold onto water and helps fluid get to the right places in the body, like muscles and blood.” It must be noted that the emphasis for Skolnik, who advises major basketball teams States-side, is on “harder and longer duration exercises”, and her opinion is very much in line with other professionals (on both sides of the Pond) on the key role of supplements for extra-rigorous physical activity.

And because so much nutrition expertise seems to come from the US, it is worth mentioning a Washington Post article from 2012 taking up the hydration debate in ‘Hydration: Water vs. sports drinks’. Columnist Gabriella Dixon quotes sports dietitian Suzanne Girard Eberle: “The basic guideline for most people is that if you are doing continuous exercise for 60 minutes or less, then water is fine. But beyond 60 minutes and if the intensity is high, you should consider a sports drink.” Dixon qualifies this by saying “[It] is because sports drinks include electrolytes (which help regulate nerves and muscles), carbohydrates (which help restore the body’s glycogen — or fuel — levels) and water (which helps hydrate).”

The debate around the heath properties of sports drinks, and whether or not they really are worth it, is a deep and informed one. The professionals do not agree on everything, but their approach takes into account every aspect of a person’s lifestyle as a motivator (and need) for nutritional supplements. And bar all but one of the studies mentioned, they highlight the pre-eminence of water as a first point of call in the sports nutrition game.

Whether or not water is enough of an energy replacement then depends on one’s own needs. If you are into fitness any type of energy drink, including water, will work for you, albeit in their own ways. Isotonic drinks are ideal for the avid gym-goer and athlete, providing the hydration and energy needed to maintain high performance and an optimal work out. If you are into sports but require less of an energy boost – e.g., gymnastics, joga and pilates – hypotonic drinks are the tonic for you. But note, these are ultimately just watered-down versions of isotonic formulae, so water (unless bought) will always come in the cheaper while remaining an effective alternative. And if you are primarily after a supplement, either as a product of a physical workout or an added boost to your daily diet, hypertonic fluids are probably what you want, or water or alternative homemade nutrition blends that make use of fresh fruits, a variety of glucose alternatives (especially if you are trying to watch your overall sugar intake), ginger (and similar roots) and natural powders (such as spirulina). Then again, one could pack sports drinks in altogether if a simple daily supplement is all you need, opting instead for coconut milk, chocolate milk (believe it or not!) and fruits and veg that boost the bodies sugar and salt levels naturally, like dates, raisins, bananas and carrots.

Are sports nutrition drinks then really worth it? Really? Well perhaps, if you find your body craving a candy bar and salty foods after a major workout. But alternatives exist that are also kind to the inner workings of you, not to mention very forgiving to your wallet.

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