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Sports Drinks or Water?




Nancy Neithercut

What are sports drinks? How do they differ from energy drinks?


Sports drinks are also known as electrolyte drinks. The purported purpose it to help athletes replace water, electrolytes and energy, before, during and after training or competition.


Energy drinks contain caffeine or other stimulants, often more than regular soft drinks, as well as vitamins and other isolated nutrients, and are often classified as supplements.


There are three categories of sports drinks, the most popular contain similar concentrations of salts (sodium and potassium) and sugar as in the human body, some less, some more. These contain between 4 and 5 heaped teaspoons of sugar per eight ounce, or 18-20 grams per 12 oz serving. Soft drinks contain more than 40 grams of sugar per a single 12-ounce serving. Mountain Dew has 46 grams of sugar. Soft drinks not only have more sugar but also they are carbonated. Many are filled with food coloring and other un-necessary and un-wanted chemicals, like sports drinks.




How popular are they?

These drinks are immensely popular, with the most common type, isotonic drinks (containing the same amount of sugar and salts as in the human body), predicted to be 11.9 billion dollars by 2025.


They remind me of granola bars, the ‘healthy’ adult candy bar. People suck them down and forget about the calories.




Is there any evidence that they are better than just drinking water and eating the right foods?


We do need carbohydrate to fuel our muscles and brains, to make glycogen in our liver and muscles as glucose storage, and we require carbohydrate to re-fuel after exercise, but do we need sugary drinks?


Researching marathoners to determine if water or sports drinks would prevent hyponatremia (too little salt in blood, due in these runners to drinking too much water, even to the point of gaining weight during the marathon), 13% had hyponatremia, and there was no difference between those who consumed sports drinks versus those who consumed water during the race. (1)


In a study comparing water, sports drinks or bananas on inflammation resulting from exercise, 20 cyclists, after fasting, completed four 75-km time trials, separated by two weeks. One was with water only, two with water and two different kinds of bananas, and one with a six percent sugar beverage. Blood samples were taken before exercise, and six more times up to 45 hours post exercise.

Drinking water-only resulted in more inflammation than the others. The eating of bananas during cycling lowered inflammation markers even further. (2)


Most studies compare sports drinks with water, rather than water and food.


It is important to consider that your body does not register liquid calories as food calories, and you will not feel full from these drinks. You may end up consuming more calories during and after exercise than your body is burning. We can see children drinking these sports drinks, believing that they are ‘healthy’, but water should be the beverage of choice.







  1. Christopher S.D. Almond, M.D., M.P.H., et all, Hyponatremia among Runners in the Boston Marathon, N Engl J Med 2005; 352:1550-1556. April 14, 2005


(2) Nieman DC, Gillitt ND, Sha W, Esposito D, Ramamoorthy S. Metabolic recovery from heavy exertion following banana compared to sugar beverage or water only ingestion: A randomized, crossover trial. PLoS One. 2018;13(3):e0194843. Published 2018 Mar 22. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0194843


(3) Amiri M, Ghiasvand R, Kaviani M, Forbes SC, Salehi-Abargouei A. Chocolate milk for recovery from exercise: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2019;73(6):835-849. doi:10.1038/s41430-018-0187-x

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