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Staying Hydrated: The Scary Truth About Sports Drinks

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During any given “lazy” summer day, my daughter is constantly running from one commitment to the next, never wavering in her enthusiasm or energy.  As a nutritionist, a question I’m frequently asked by athletes and other moms is, how can we hydrate our bodies or our children’s bodies to accommodate this constant demand for output and quick recovery?  There are so many products marketed to our children with bright, convenient packaging and catchy names claiming to meet all of a child’s athletic energy and hydrating needs… but do they, really?

What’s wrong with sports drinks?

Let’s look at some popular sports drinks.  These beverages contain some sugar, sodium and potassium – all important ingredients when we are exercising in high heat and need to replenish our electrolytes.  But what else is in it?  High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a frequent sweetener in these drinks.  This type of sweetener is particularly damaging to our bodies because it doesn’t provide energy that we can readily utilize.  HFCS is actually transported to the liver where it’s directly converted and stored as fat.  The amount of sugar (around 14 g) in these drinks is excessive and often leads to a rebound drop of blood sugar and energy and a consequent sugar craving.  

Often you will also find brominated vegetable oil (BVO) on the list of ingredients in sports drinks.  Brominated vegetable oil is added to sports drinks to improve texture.  Brominated vegetable oil is banned in over 100 countries, but the toxic effects of BVO are still being studied in this U.S.  

Sports drinks also tend to be loaded with artificial sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives.  Fundamentally, our bodies consider these substances to be chemicals. Our bodies don’t recognize artificial sweeteners, flavors or preservatives as food, so it tries to get rid of them. What follows is a metabolic process during which our bodies try to purge these chemicals from our system, a process which requires antioxidants from the body’s nutrient stores.  Processed sports drinks are not just “empty calories;” they are depleting antioxidants and nutrients our bodies really need.  There must be a better way to hydrate our children – and there is!

How much water should my child drink?

As a rule of thumb, I recommend kids drink half their body’s weight in ounces of water every day, particularly during the summer months.  When exercising and sweating, it’s particularly important to rehydrate frequently.  Sipping water throughout the day can provide better hydration than “chugging” all at once.  

When it comes to replenishing the electrolytes our bodies so dearly need, we get the majority of the electrolytes we need through eating a healthy, balanced diet of mostly non-starchy vegetables. Eating well and drinking plenty throughout the week is key to building up a reserve of energy for strenuous events. During sports events in the heat I recommend rehydrating with water and an electrolyte drink that is easy to make at home. Coconut water is a natural, quick and excellent source of electrolytes and hydration. You’ll want to avoid coconut water drinks with added sugar, so read labels carefully.

The perfect homemade sports drink:

To make a quick, natural electrolyte drink, mix together:

3 cups of water

1/2 cup of your child’s favorite unsweetened, juice (blueberry and orange are great for providing extra antioxidant support)

2 Tablespoons pure maple syrup or honey

1/8  teaspoon sea salt

I like to keep a large container of this electrolyte mix in my refrigerator over the summer months so whoever needs it can fill their water bottle as they are running out the door – and I try to keep up.