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How Healthy is Your Sports Drink?

by Salvatore J. Tirrito M.D., F.A.C.C.

Remember the old adage, “Treat your body well and it will treat you well.” As an athlete, you should be even more concerned about what goes in your body. It never ceases to amaze me how many athletes will pound their bodies into the ground day after day, eat highly specialized diets and abstain from many of the common pleasures of life, all in the hopes of achieving supreme fitness. However, if it comes in a pill, powder or gel form, they do not discriminate and will put just about anything in their body.

Since the introduction of Gatorade, the sports drink industry has come a long way. There is an almost dizzying array of products to choose from, with each one stating to be better than the other. Although, it appears clear that they can enhance your performance (at least when compared to water), the question is: Are they really healthy? Here are a couple of reasons why they may not be:

Stevia is a collection of about 150 herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family. It is native to parts of Central and South America. Since stevia is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and virtually devoid of calories, it has garnered much attention as a “natural sugar substitute.” However, due to conflicting evidence regarding the safety of stevia, the European Commission has banned the use of stevia in food in the European Union. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also banned its use as a sweetener. In the United States, stevia cannot be labeled and sold as any type of sweetener. However, Stevia can be packaged and sold as a nutritional supplement, which is how it can be found in some sports drinks.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
HFCS is a sweetener and preservative used in many processed foods including sports drinks. The reason HFCS is so popular is that it is cheaper and sweeter than sugar and extends the shelf life of foods. Many experts blame increased consumption of HFCS for the growing obesity problem and adverse health effects such as diabetes.

Sucralose is an artificial sweetener, which was originally sold under then trade name Splenda. It is about 600 times sweeter than household sugar and when metabolized does not produce any energy (or calories). Let me say that again: does not produce energy. Now why would you want to have something in your sports drink that makes it sweet and does not give you energy? If that is not enough, recent evidence may suggest that artificial sweeteners may actually promote weight gain.

Another old adage, “More is better.” Well, when it comes to vitamins this may not be necessarily true. I will not subject you to the details of the hundreds of published studies on vitamin supplementation, but I will say this: There is very little evidence (if any) to suggest mega supplementation does any good and much more evidence to suggest that it in fact may do harm. So what is mega supplementation anyway? When you look at the label and see you are ingesting several times the recommended daily allowance (RDA) that is mega supplementation.

Artificial Colors
You can recognize that your sports drink contains artificial colors by the letters FD&C (Food, Drugs & Cosmetics) that precedes the name of the color (for example, FD&C Blue 1 or FD&C Yellow 5). Although, they are generally deemed as safe, they are artificial, and really do not belong in your sports drink. That is, unless you really truly believe, that it is the flaming red color of your sports drink that makes you go faster.

Artificial Flavors
These are too numerous to list but let us just say this, if you crack open the latest sports drink and it has a taste that is out of this world, chances are that it is. It was probably made in a chemistry lab somewhere. When picking a sports drink look for one that specifically states it contains no artificial flavors.

Unfortunately, these are not the only things to look out for, there are many, many more. Next time you pick up your favorite sports drink, take a close look at the label. If you see something on the ingredients list and you do not know what it is, look it up. What you find may surprise you. Remember, you are an athlete, your body is a temple. Only good things must go in to get unparalleled performance out. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a neon blue temple?

Salvatore J. Tirrito M.D., F.A.C.C. is a cardiologist based in Tucson Arizona and is a member of Coach Troy Jacobson’s Triathlon Academy professional advisory board.

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