When are Sports Drinks Appropriate for Hydration?

Several years ago, a mom brought Gatorade for her son’s middle school soccer team. It was 90°F, 90% humidity and she was worried that the young athletes would get dehydrated during their game. 

The kids were grateful. The coach was grateful. Some parents were grateful, some didn’t notice, and some reacted like she had brought everyone eight ounce bottles of cyanide. 

There is a lot of confusion about sports drinks like Gatorade. When are sports drinks appropriate for hydration? Are sports drinks appropriate for hydration, especially in teens? Let’s try to clear some of that up!

(And yes, that mom was me.)

What exactly is a sports drink?

A sports drink is typically defined as a flavored beverage that contains a mixture of sugars and electrolytes. The electrolytes are there to replace the ones you lose through exertion and sweat. The sugars are there to provide easy carbohydrate energy.

sports drinks should contain water, sugar and electrolytes

Ingredients

Different brands of sports drinks will have different ingredients, but the basics are the same.

Electrolytes

Electrolytes are minerals that our body needs to perform essential functions. They play a role in muscle contraction, hydration, nervous system function, and pH balance. The most common electrolytes to find in a sports drink are sodium, magnesium, and potassium.

When choosing a sports drink, the primary electrolyte to look for is sodium, as this is the mineral that people lose the most through sweat and the one that can get too low too fast when athletes drink a lot of water.

Water

Some sports drinks are ready-to-drink, so the water is already included.

Some come in powder or gel form, so you have to add the water yourself. Don’t skip this step and try to just consume the product as-is, because water is the most important part of staying hydrated.

In fact, in some cases, you should just have water and skip the sports drink; I’ll get into that more later.

Sugars

Sports drinks are often sweetened with cane sugar, glucose syrup, sucrose, corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup. The purpose of sweeteners in a sports drink is, yes, sweetness, but the sweetener also provides the carbohydrate calories that give the sports drink its energy.

Artificial Sweeteners

Some sports drinks contain artificial sweeteners in place or all or some of the added sugars. I personally do not recommend sports drinks with artificial sweeteners, because in my opinion, half of the purpose of the sports drink is providing energy. Look for Sucralose or Acesulfame K in the ingredients list if you’re checking for artificial sweeteners.

Protein and Amino Acids

Some sports drinks are advertised as containing protein or amino acids for muscle recovery. If your workout or game is long enough that this is necessary, a better choice would be a small snack containing protein and carbohydrate. However, if this isn’t possible for some reason, maybe these special protein sports drinks could come in handy. 

many types of bottled drinks
So many choices!

Someone said something about coconut water

Coconut water does contain electrolytes, as does plain old mineral water. However, these amounts are not consistent, so you can’t be quite sure how much of any one mineral you’re getting. I prefer the engineered nature of a commercial sports drink. 

If you’d like to try something with a mineral water or coconut water base, try this recipe from Epicurious, which has added ingredients to ensure a minimum of important electrolytes.

Difference between sports drinks and energy drinks

Energy drinks differs from sports drinks in that they contain a stimulant, such as caffeine or guarana, and less loften ginseg or ephedra. The ingredients and health claims are not regulated. I do not recommend that anyone consume energy drinks, but especially not adolescents and children. 

The combination of sugars and stimulants has been shown to increase stress, aggressive behaviors, and stomach distress and also to decrease restful sleep. Please do not consume energy drinks! You may experience a temporary increase in energy, but the trade-off is not worth it.

What’s wrong with plain water?

Nothing. Plain water is great. For many people in most situations, using water to replace the fluid we lose when we sweat is the perfect choice.

Electrolytes, part II

However, sometimes we lose a lot of water and along with it a lot of electrolytes, especially salt. When this happens and we drink water to make up for it, we can end up with too much water and not enough salt in our system. This is called hyponatremia. 

This sounds scary, but it doesn’t happen very often. Water is usually the best choice for rehydrating during and after exercise, but sometimes sports drinks are the better choice.

Sugars, part II

Another thing that happens when we exercise for long periods is we use up the energy stores that are in our muscles. This means we start depending on our blood sugar for energy, which means we’d better have enough blood sugar to use. Replenishing with simple carbohydrates like sugars will provide us with the continued energy we need to keep our activity levels up.

water bottles

Are sports drinks a good idea for teens?

Sometimes, parents and teens can worry about consuming something, because they’ve heard that teenage bodies are different and process things differently. The fact is, teenage bodies are doing a lot of extra work by growing and developing. Does any of that affect whether or not a sports drink is appropriate for hydration?

Teen nutrition

Teenagers and preteens are starting to be more independent with their food choices. A teen athlete knows that nutrition is important for their performance, and also likes things that taste good and are easy to obtain, prepare and eat. 

If most foods a teenager eats are convenience foods, they may already be getting a lot of simple carbohydrates and salt. However, this does not mean that a sports drink is a bad idea. In circumstances that call for a sports drink, the teen needs the added electrolytes and sugars regardless of the rest of their diet.

Dental issues

Any sugary drink can damage tooth enamel and contribute to cavities, so I always recommend that people brush their teeth after drinking them. Sports drinks are no exception to this.

However, sports drinks also often contain citric acid, which can further erode tooth enamel and promote further decay. So, teens: brush your teeth!

Medical reasons a sports drinks might not be appropriate for hydration

As with everything, there are some people who should not consume sports drinks. Here are some reasons you would want to check with your health care providers about whether or not sports drinks are a good choice for you. Hopefully, in these cases you’re already seeing and talking to them regularly anyway! Asking for this guidance

Diabetes

Teenagers with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes should check with their doctor, nurse or registered dietitian nutritionist about the best way to incorporate electrolyte replenishment into their sports programming.

Certain restrictive diets

If you are currently eating a restricted diet for medical reasons, please check with your health care provider about whether or not you should be consuming sports drinks. (If you’re eating a restricted diet for non-medical reasons, please also check with your health care provider about what you’re doing and why.)

Gout

If you are prone to gout flare ups, know that the fructose content of some sports drinks may be an issue for you. Again, please talk to your health care provider.

What the plant-powered teen should look for in a sports drink

Is it vegan?

If you are a plant-based eater, you might wonder whether your sports drink is vegan. Or, you might be asking yourself what I’m even talking about. How could a sports drink not be vegan?

Vegans and plant-based eaters differ in their philosophies about which types of foods are vegan or plant-based and which are not. This section is simply intended to provide you with information so you can make a decision for yourself.

Sugar

The biggest potential non-vegan ingredient in a sports drink is the cane sugar. Many brands of cane sugar are processed using bone char, and many vegans do not eat those sugars. Sports drinks manufacturers get their sugar from a variety of sources, so they may not even know whether there was bone char used or not, but you can always call to ask.

Tip: Any product labeled “organic” will not have sugar processed with bone char; Gatorade Organic Thirst Quenchers are a good example.

The Kosher Label

For some vegans, having no animal ingredients present in the drink itself is good enough. If this is the case, look for drinks labeled kosher: even if these are processed using bone char, they are certified to have no residue of the bone char in the final product. Both Gatorade and Powerade carry the kosher label.

Vegan Labels

Any product certified or labeled as vegan will be… you know… vegan. For example, Nuun tablets are certified vegan by the American Vegetarian Association.

(By the way, that little V in a circle? Nobody regulates that. Also, it can be easily confused with another kosher symbol. Don’t pay it any attention.)

Artificial Food Colorings

Many artificial food colorings were tested on animals while they were being created. If this means that you would like to avoid artficial food colors, choose clear options or powder options without artificial food colorings.

Natural Flavors and Colors

The ingredients “natural flavors” and “natural colors” may be from animal sources. Some vegans choose to avoid all products with these ingredients, and some do not. 

Some specific natural food ingredients are made from animals. Carmine (also called cochineal, carminic acid, Natural Red 4, or E120) is a red coloring that comes from insects. Castoreum is a vanillla-like flavor made from beaver glands. 

No stimulants!

Please do not drink sports drinks that include any type of stimulant. Be on the lookout for caffeine, guarana (scientific name: Paullinia cupana), ephedrine (epehedra, ma huang), and ginseng. Avoid these. Do I sound like a broken record yet? No energy drinks!

Where is the list of good sports drinks so I can just pick one?

Any commercial sports drink or powder will have its pros and cons, and I don’t know what is important to you and your values. Do you prefer a product free from artificial colors? Do you want something backed by the regulation and research of a large brand? 

These are questions only you can answer. Whatever sports drink you buy, or is provided by your team or school, is almost certainly just fine.

So, when are sports drinks appropriate for hydration?

Sports drinks are appropriate for hydration when water isn’t good enough. When you are sweating a great deal and expending a lot of a energy, a sports drink might be the better choice. How do you know? Here are two situations a young athlete is likely to encounter.

Heat and humidity

Our bodies use sweat for temperature regulation: when our bodies are hot, the sweat evaporates and makes us cooler. When it is very hot, our bodies are trying to cool us down, so we sweat more. 

When it’s very humid, our bodies can’t cool us down as well because the sweat isn’t evaporating like usual. And so we sweat more. 

If it’s hotter or more humid than your body is used to, you might sweat enough that you lose too many electrolytes. This would be a good time to use a sports drink. 

sweaty forehead
If you’re sweating a lot, seriously consider a sports drink!

Longer exercise sessions

The longer we exercise, the more we sweat and the more energy we use. If our exercise session is longer than one hour in moderate temperatures, or longer than two hours in any temperature, choose a sports drink.

In these situations, a sports drink will help us take in the electrolytes we need to stay hydrated the right way and the calories that we need to fight fatigue and keep going with our activity or sport.

Bottom line

Did you skip to this section? Here’s your very brief summary of when sports drinks are appropriate for hydration: 

  • If it’s very hot and humid and you’re sweating more than usual, you might want to use a sports drink. 
  • Choose one that provides calories, that contains sodium, and that does not contain stimulants.
  • Brush your teeth when you’re done.
  • Choose a brand that is consistent with your ethics and values.
  • Check with your health care provider if you have any medical conditions or questions.

About the Author

Sarah Skovran, RDN LD ACE-PT, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, ACE certified personal trainer, mom of a teen athlete, and is mostly vegan. She writes about sports nutrition, plant based eating, and adolescent nutrition at Plant Powered Teens, and sees in-person clients at her private practice in Maine.

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Hanif M, Saleem S, Naz S, Sundas FNU. (2020) Energy drinks and atrial fibrillation: An unusual case of caution. Cureus, 12(10): e10807. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.10807

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