Top-tier athletes, weekend warriors, and clubgoers love their sports and energy drinks – but are they really getting a boost?
Seattle-based dietitian Lola O'Rourke says so-called "functional" drinks that promise increased endurance and mental clarity in a bottle are often full of hype – and may even harm, not help, you.
Here, O'Rourke provides the lowdown on these punch-packing beverages.
Sports drinks vs. energy drinks – what's the difference?
Sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade recharge the body by replacing the materials, such as electrolytes, used up by the body's muscles when exercising. They're geared toward athletes wanting to replenish their bodies after serious physical activity, but are popular among average consumers.
Energy drinks, such as Rockstar, Full Throttle and Cocaine, contain legal stimulants such as caffeine, carbohydrates, herbs, and sometimes sugar, and are marketed to young people, students, and sports players.
What ingredients should I look for?
Sports drinks typically contain sugar, water and electrolytes (which include sodium, potassium, phosphate, calcium, and magnesium). O'Rourke advises choosing those with lower levels of sugar.
Energy drinks usually contain caffeine, sometimes sugar, amino acids such as taurine, and herbs such as guarana, ginseng, and gingko biloba – some of which are better known than others. She suggests opting for drinks with lower caffeine levels, and researching ingredients before drinking beverages that contain them (keep in mind that herbs can act like medications and have side effects or interact with other medications you may be taking).
Who should consume them?
High-level athletes exerting themselves for an extended period of time can benefit from sports drinks, O'Rourke says, but recreational athletes and average consumers don't need them for daily tasks.
O'Rourke says that until more is known about the buzz-promoting ingredients in energy drinks, it's best to avoid them or drink them in moderation.
What are the risks?
Athletes who rely too heavily on sports drinks may overdose and make themselves sick by upsetting their electrolyte balances, O'Rourke says.
The possible risks of energy drinks are far greater, she says.
"The combination of excess caffeine and herbs we know little about can be harmful," O'Rourke says. Caffeine can also remove calcium from your bones.
She adds that mixing energy drinks, which are stimulants, with alcohol, a depressant – a trend among clubbers and party-all-night ravers – sends your nervous system mixed messages, which can cause heart-related problems.
What are the alternatives?
Everything we need to stay hydrated, energized, and focused can be found in our diets, O'Rourke says.
Sports players can use water to stay hydrated, and whole fruits or fruit smoothies to stock up on the carbohydrates and protein they need to maintain their stamina, she says.
For the average person, she says, water and whole foods will do the trick.
"A balanced diet of water, whole-grain foods, fruits that contain antioxidants, and protein- and fibre-rich foods provide the nutrients you need to stay alert and invigorated."
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