Your Guide to Choosing Sports Snacks: Sports Drinks

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Are Sports Drinks Bad for Your Health?

Sports drinks are everywhere – you see them on the sidelines at pro sporting events and even little league games, but are they appropriate for you and your kids? In Part II of our snacking discussion our expert breaks down why sports drinks may not be ideal!

Drop the sports drinks today

Last week we covered the first of our three rules for sports snacks. Click here to read it.

Today we will cover the second rule – Don’t drink the sports drink or the Kool-Aid.

When you consume sports drinks, you not only ingest a large amount of sugar and artificial ingredients you don’t need, but also swallow the sales pitch that you need sports drinks to either have energy or to not run out of energy. For a more detailed perspective and plan, check out The 3/4 Rule at Amazon.

Rule 2 – Most athletes don’t need sports drinks or chocolate/flavored milk.

  • Your athlete does not need a sports drink before training to pre-load muscles with energy. The reality is that insulin levels spike, which floods your system with glucose that cannot be absorbed fast enough, so glucose levels rise. This actually bogs down your metabolic processes and makes them less efficient.

sports drinks bottleJust as light to moderate rainfall can be better absorbed by the soil and managed by storm sewers than a sudden torrential downpour, the body can metabolize slowly digested food better than quickly digested carbohydrate.

Quick-release or fast acting carbohydrate causes glucoseflooding of the system and the body cannot extract the glucose from the blood fast enough. Just as water levels rise quickly after torrential rain, so do glucose levels in the blood.

However, the same amount of rain falling over a long period can be absorbed into the ground and water levels do not rise.

The solution is to simply have a protein and carbohydrate source from whole food prior to training to promote efficient, balanced energy and metabolization. If needed this can be repeated during practice by taking a few bites of food intermittently during practice.

The majority of athletes do not need a sports drink during practice.

Most individual young athletes do not train intensely and continuously for over 90 minutes, regardless of how long practice is scheduled for.

  • This is an important distinction as most recent and relevant research used to back sports drinks, including chocolate milk, has only shown positive results on elite Triathletes and cyclists, who train intensely and continuously for over 90 minutes, often twice a day. This means the overwhelming majority of athletes don’t have to worry about an electrolyte imbalance, which makes the whole subject of electrolyte replacement, and the products that support it, irrelevant and inappropriate for young athletes. Of course there will be exceptions when a good sports drink is exactly what you need. Just be careful of the exception becoming the rule or the crutch you use to compensate for a generally low nutrient/energy diet.

Remember, Gatorade was developed for the Florida Gators football team that trained for hours under an intense Florida sun, with much less sophisticated strength and conditioning protocols than currently used.

Today’s training has evolved in that it is less common practice for young athletes to be subject to practice til’ you puke programs.

Sports drinks large
Think again about reaching for that sports drink!

High school and collegiate programs are more mindful of the importance of recovery cycles for optimum development.

Having said that, if your child is subject to old school training conditions, in climates that could promote heat exhaustion, then 4-8oz of a sports drink that contains sugar and electrolytes might be appropriate during training.

Just make sure the drink does not violate the ingredients list of Rule #1. Click here to view.

  • Post Training Recovery. Regardless of training duration, most athletes of any age should have a mix of protein and sugar within 30 minutes after training, as the recovery/adaptation cycles are what is most important. Protein to repair damaged muscle tissue, and sugars to replenish muscle energy stores in the form of glycogen. Ideally, get your sugar from a whole food – banana, grapes, pineapple, oranges, etc.
    Regular, unflavored milk is also an option post practice. Remember, unflavored milk has natural milk sugar along with protein. You don’t need the added sugars of flavored milk, invoking the more is not always better
  • Most sports drinks have harmful and/or questionable ingredients, including artificial sweeteners and colors. I had a conversation on this topic with Dr. John Showel, an oncologist at Rush St. Lukes and Loyola Hospitals in Chicago where he stated, “MRI and Cat Scan imaging clearly and consistently shows lesions on the brain of children who consume products with artificial sweeteners such as soft drinks and sports drinks. The younger the child, the more pronounced the effect of the lesions.”
    Depending on the flavor and variety, both Gatorade and Powerade have one or more harmful or questionable ingredients that violate the ingredients list of Rule #1.

The Challenge

If you have a young athlete that has a sports drink in hand at times other than sports practice, it is time to stop. I’ve spent part of my career specializing in youth athletic development and I’ve heard it all. I can’t drink water.

I can only drink soda, sports drinks, fizzy or penguin water (carbonated). This is because their brains, biochemistry and taste buds are becoming conditioned to the sugar and flavorings included in those other beverages, just as the Big Foods manufacturers intended.

The beverage companies know that their products condition you to feel that any liquid you put in your mouth should feel like a party, all stimulating and exciting. Anything short of that, like water, boring. Former head of the FDA David Kessler calls this phenomenon a “food carnival.”

The manufacturer also knows that subconsciously, many parents believe this is a healthier alternative to soda. This is not true.

As bad as the soda is, in many instances the sports drinks are worse.

The good news is this process is easy to reverse. Simply have a conversation with your kids educating them on sports drinks. For the small percentage of you whose kids will need small amounts of sports drinks during practices, games or competitions, control when they get sports drinks by having them ask for or check out a bottle.

Do this for one month, they will have adapted after that and most will be able to self-regulate.

Do your kids drink sports drinks on a regular basis? Is their consumption limited to sports, or do they just grab them whenever they need a sugar fix?

Do you feel sports drinks are a healthier alternative to soft drinks?

Wrap-Up

  1. sports drinks waterMost athlete’s training conditions do not justify sports drinks. They are simply the wrong tool for the job.
  2. Get your energy from a balanced, whole food diet, consisting of protein, whole grain carbohydrates, legumes, vegetables and fruits. The other part of the energy equation is to get proper sleep and recovery cycles.
  3. Proper development, whether physical, mental or emotional is about increasing your capacity, not attempting to protect yourself from energy loss, fatigue or discomfort.  These are the benefits of a greater capacity.

See you at Rule #3!

Chris Weiler

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