There has never been a wider variety of sports drinks and energy gels available to choose from than now. Just what’s in them and how do they help you? Clement Gan tells us all we need to know.
Q: What are the main ingredients in a sports drink?
A: ‘Sports drinks’ are really carbohydrate-electrolyte beverages designed to ensure a right balance of carbohydrate and fluid that can be readily absorbed into the body efficiently.
Carbohydrate acts as the main source of fuel for muscle and brain activity. Also, it plays an important role as a flavouring agent to create a more appealing and palatable beverage. The carbohydrate content of sports drinks should not exceed eight per cent, as high carbohydrate concentrations may cause impairment of gastric emptying whilst engaging in an intensive physical activity. Read the food label before purchase.
Sports drinks contain electrolytes, mainly sodium and potassium. Sodium is significantly important especially to those who sweat a lot. Sodium helps to replace salt and boosts fluid absorption as well as retention. Ideally, sports drinks contain 10-25mmol/L of sodium.
Fluid intake is reportedly better when compared to plain water due to taste. It is an important feature to consider for the manufacturer to attract consumers.
- Other Ingredients
Occasionally, sports drinks are introduced with antioxidants (Vitamin E and C) in minute amounts. Also, some beverages feature added protein for recovery benefits.
Q: Why some people don’t seem to digest energy gels well?
A: Gels are not for everyone. Some formulas can result in stomach upset by causing a slower movement of water emptying out of the gut into the body. The amount of carbohydrate replenishment one needs is highly individual as well. The golden rule is to maximise energy repletion while minimising gut discomfort. Experiment and start with small amounts. Studies have shown that optimal intake is around 60 g/hour during endurance events.
Q. How do liquid carbohydrates work in sports drinks?
A: Sports drinks make a good fueling and hydrating option. The reason being that they contain a mix of carbohydrates and water. While engaging in moderate to intense physical activities ranging from 60 minutes to several hours, consuming sports drinks significantly boost endurance performance compared to drinking plain water. Most sports drinks contain a mix of carbohydrates, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose and galactose. Blending different types of sugars may improve the amount of carbohydrates that get into the muscles as fuel. Also, carbohydrates get absorbed more efficiently. This is because different carbohydrates are being digested via different absorption routes in the small intestine. This also means that more carbohydrates make it to the muscles as fuel.
Q: Do sports drinks make one feel full?
A: As long as your sports drink is not carbonated, it is easy to drink and does not make you full or bloated. Yes, sports drink contains mainly – water. However, as you are engaged in a moderate to intense physical activity, it is more of a concern if you are getting sufficient water for rehydration.
Q: Are sports drinks empty calories?
A: ‘Empty calories’ are being defined as calories from solid fats and added sugars in food and beverage. Sports drinks act as an ergogenic aid to enhance sports performance, so there is nutritive value in sports drinks. For example, caffeine and carbohydrates, common ingredients in some sports drinks, help muscle recovery better. Glycogen, the muscles’ primary fuel source during an exercise activity, is replenished more quickly when the body is introduced with carbohydrates and caffeine during a workout.
Q: Will one gain weight if sports drinks are consumed in large amounts?
A: Yes, with no doubt. In fact, for people who play sports casually, there is no need to consume sports drinks as the fluid requirements can be met by drinking plain water. Furthermore, excessive amounts of electrolytes are not lost as there is no excessive production of sweat. In addition, if we are exercising to lose weight, drinking sports drinks may mean that we need to spend an extra half hour or more at the gym. That is why, for less intense physical activity, water is considered to be the best hydrator.
When sports drinks are used outside of the context of significant physical exertion, these drinks provide large amounts of unnecessary sugar and sodium. Many of them are available in 600ml bottles and contain approximately 35g of sugar, which is equivalent to 7 teaspoons of sugar.
In addition, a large sports drink bottle contains approximately 480mg of sodium. This is a concern because increased sodium consumption may raise blood pressure, which in turn may result in the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Parents and educators should supervise children in the purchase of sweetened beverages. It is recommended that children should drink water before, during and after exercise. A 380ml bottle of Lucozade Energy contains 266 Kcal, that is, almost the same as a Mars Bar (260 Kcal).
Q: Are there cheap, natural substitutes for energy gels and bars?
A: Fruits can also be used for fueling a workout. Be it dried or fresh, it supplies a shot of carbohydrate that is well and easily digested. Furthermore, dried fruit can be easily carried along during a race. Most fruits provide about 15g of carbohydrate per serving. A rule of thumb is to aim for one to two servings before a workout and two to three servings every hour of moderate to intensive physical activity.
Also, research does suggest that coconut water can be as effective as sports drinks for rehydration. However, it is important to note that coconut water usually consist lesser sodium and carbohydrates. However, there is a significant amount of potassium content. Thus, coconut water may not be suitable for those with a history of hyperkalemia (high potassium levels in the blood).
The Bottom Line
Athletes can benefit from the use of sports drinks and gels that contain carbohydrate and sodium to aid in performance and rehydration. However, it is necessary to try the sports drink or gel in training first before using it at a race. Competitive athletes should consult an accredited practicing dietitian who specialises in sports nutrition to help them individuals in developing a hydration routine.