Personal Health

Do We Really Need Sports Drinks?

For those who aren't professional runners, sports drinks and energy bars don't provide nutritional value.

Americans spent $5.5 billion on sports drinks, mostly Gatorade and Powerade last year. Even 12 percent of elementary school kids drink sports drinks. And that doesn’t even count expenditures on other sports nutrition products, like an estimated $583 million spent on nutrition bars in 2013, or the more than 25 million packets of GU energy gel produced each year.

Endurance athletes have unique nutritional needs, which means at least some of the sports nutrition products on the market serve a crucial purpose. But how many of us guzzle Gatorade while training for a marathon, and how many of us drink it while sitting on the couch?

In cycling terminology, “bonking” means running out of your body’s stored glycogen. Your body stores about 2,000 calories of energy as glycogen, which it can easily convert to glucose and use as quick fuel. Running burns about 100 calories per mile, so it’s not hard to see why the estimated four in 10 marathon runners who bonk tend to do so around mile 20.

Once your glycogen runs out, your body can use fat as energy instead, but fat is less efficient than carbs to burn, and requires more oxygen to metabolize. Understandably, for an athlete, that means slowing down. What’s more, your brain requires glycogen for fuel, so a bonk might mean more than just slowed physical performance, it can also mean becoming confused or disoriented.

To avoid a bonk, endurance athletes need to eat. And not just anything. They need to eat carbs. Refined carbs and even plain sugar— the very foods dietitians usually tell us to avoid — make perfect fuel to keep an athlete going.

Fluids and electrolytes are also important when exerting yourself for an extended period of time. Slower marathon runners and triathletes who drink only water without replacing electrolytes are at risk of hyponatremia, abnormally low blood sodium. This can occur after drinking eight to 10 liters of water, and it can be fatal.

2011 study reported that cyclists exerting themselves to 85 percent of maximum capacity could absorb only half a liter of water per hour, and the remaining amount they drank stayed in their stomachs. Drinking a sugary drink like Gatorade did not improve fluid absorption, and drinking anything more sugary than that compromised rehydration. The study recommended always drinking water and replacing lost sodium while exercising. When exercise lasts more than one hour, then consume potassium and, ideally, 60 to 70 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

During strenuous exercise, blood is diverted from your gut to your skeletal muscle, heart, lungs, and brain. Often, those engaging in strenuous, long-lasting exercise complain of gastrointestinal problems like nausea, cramps, or vomiting. Dehydration can increase the prevalence of these symptoms. Sometimes, for an athlete who needs to eat, it’s just hard to get the food down and keep it down.

That’s where specially formulated sports drinks and other products come in. Take GU energy gels. The company’s founder, Bill Vaughan, created several flavors of PowerBars, yet his daughter, an endurance runner, had trouble digesting them during long races. That prompted her dad to create GU, tiny packets of gel containing amino acids, carbohydrates, electrolytes, and sometimes caffeine, as an easier-to-digest option for long races.

That said, sometimes sports products contain absolutely disgusting ingredients, like the brominated vegetable oil a 15-year-old girl shamed Gatorade and Powerade from removing from their products in the past year. And before the era of sports products, athletes often simply drank water and took salt tablets to replace what they lost through sweat. Sugary foods like fresh fruit are rich in the carbs needed to fuel exercise. (Remember eating orange slices at half time during soccer games as a kid?)

But whether sports drinks and energy bars are healthy for athletes is one thing. Whether they are nutritious when you aren’t exercising (and doing so strenuously for a long period of time, not just jogging on the treadmill for half an hour) is another. And the answer to that is almost always, no.

To eat a healthy diet, one should consume protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and fiber while limiting intake of sugars, refined carbs, and sodium—the very nutrients endurance athletes need to keep going. If an athlete’s sugary needs sound similar to jelly beans plus electrolytes, that’s because they are. Jelly Belly now sells Sports Beans, which are just that.

Additionally, avoid drinking your calories (ahem, Gatorade) because your body does not account for calories you drink like it does for calories you eat. When you eat calories, you consume fewer calories later, but not so when you drink them. And yet, a 2014 study found that Americans over age six consume a whopping 14.1 percent of their calories from added sugars (the World Health Organization recommends keeping that to five percent or less), and the largest source of added sugars (34.4%) came from sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks. Whoops.

While growth in the sports drink market has been somewhat stagnant (consumers are turning to other types of products, like meal replacement shakes or protein drinks), energy bar manufacturers have found a way to fuel the 32 percent growth they saw in 2012 (compared to the previous year). How did they do it? Easy. By marketing their products to non-athletes as healthy snacks and meal replacements.

A 2012 article in Candy Industry (yes, Candy Industry) reported that “the fastest growing segment of the energy category is the everyday consumer who cares about healthy snacking.” The article explained how Balance Bar introduced its Café line not for athletes, but for anyone sitting around, looking for a good snack. One bar in the Cinnamon Bun flavor gets you 200 calories, including nearly 4 teaspoons of sugar. (That’s actually more sugar than you’d get if you ate a real cinnamon roll.)

Nowadays, some of the bars on the market feature see-through wrappers, allowing you to peer in at the whole nuts and dried fruits in them. And you can find bars that are gluten-free, organic, vegan, or containing any number of superfoods, from maca to chia seeds. But read the labels. They are invariably chock-full of sugar, and often the fiber and protein they boast comes from additives like inulin (a.k.a. chicory root extract) and soy protein isolate.

Strangely enough, as they attempt to appeal to those who aren’t running marathons, many of these products are growing more and more inappropriate for actual marathon runners. An endurance athlete needing a quick sugar fix and some salt would find it hard to digest a bar that is chock full of fat, protein and fiber.

Drinking a Gatorade and eating a Clif Bar might help you feel sporty as you head to the gym to do 20 minutes on the stair stepper, but consider whether or not you actually need them—and what you could possibly eat or drink instead. Some mixed nuts or fresh fruit might do the trick just fine without giving you a blast of sugar intended for endurance athletes.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It."