Enemy at the Gatorade

By now, you know you shouldn’t be drinking soda. And I’m hoping you also know that you shouldn’t be tipping back bottles of Gatorade or Red Bull either.

These sports and energy drinks offer a lot more than just electrolytes or caffeine. They’re also packed with sugar. Because of that, they’re likely to give you an immediate good feeling. But they’ll also leave you crashing within hour–and of course, wanting more.

It’s a perfect formula for a beverage manufacturer. But needless to say, it’s not so great for your body.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped companies from peddling their wares under the “good-for-you” guise. There are more brands of sports recovery and energy drinks on the market now than ever.

So today, I thought I’d offer a little rundown of the sugar counts of a handful of so-called “health” beverages I’ve seen on the shelves lately. (Keep in mind that there are 4 grams of sugar in each teaspoon. The average American consumes 33 teaspoons of sugar each day–or roughly 155 pounds per person per year.)

  • Glaceau Smartwater – This is the only sports drink that I can honestly recommend. It’s just plain distilled water enhanced with electrolytes.

    Total grams of sugar = 0

  • Neuro – This brand features a number of different vitamins and minerals, with drink options designed to promote energy, sleep, stress reduction, and so on. It has an awesome website. Too bad the actual benefits are questionable, at best.

    Total grams of sugar = 12

  • O.N.E. Coconut Water – Probably one of the best examples of a product touted as an amazing wonder beverage, even though it’s loaded with sugar. Granted, the sugar’s not added–it occurs naturally in the beverage. But natural sugar is still sugar, despite a fair profile of vitamins and minerals.

    Total grams of sugar = 19

  • ALO Awaken – This drink supposedly combines the energizing properties of wheatgrass with the health benefits of aloe vera. But it doesn’t come at a small price in terms of sugar content.

    Total grams of sugar = 30

  • Vitamin Water XXX – While this drink may pack triple the antioxidants of an ordinary health/sport beverage, it also packs a wallop in the sugar department.

    Total grams of sugar = 33

  • POM Wonderful – This is the ultimate example of marketing hype gone wild. Yes, pomegranates have been known for their healing power since biblical times. Too bad we’ve ruined the health benefits by making it “easy” to consume. Any fruit juice is bad for your health and this is no exception.

    Total grams of sugar = 80

Of course, these high carb counts aren’t a problem for hard-core exercise enthusiasts. If you’re a marathoner or a cyclist who trains for hours on end, extra electrolytes and sugar can even help your performance.

But in this instance, your best bet may not be any of the beverages above.

As part of a recent study, researchers gave trained cyclists either a cup of a high-carbohydrate drink or half of a banana every 15 minutes during a simulated 75-kilometer road race. (The average cycling time was about three hours.)

Results showed that performance was exactly the same with both the sports drink and the banana. But bananas offered plenty that the beverage didn’t–including antioxidants, fiber, potassium, and vitamin B6.

Now, I don’t usually recommend filling up on bananas–they’re too high in sugar compared to other fruits. (If you recall our discussion yesterday, I’m a bigger fan of options like berries and melon.)

But for serious endurance athletes, there’s little question that a banana is a healthier choice than a bottle of Gatorade any day of the week. And it’s a whole lot cheaper, too.

For the rest of us, my favorite “sports drink”–and the one I recommend the most–will always be water, pure and simple.

That said, if you really feel like you need a little something more after a workout, why not whip up a protein shake instead? I recommend whey powders with 7 grams or less of carbohydrates per serving (usually in the form of fiber).

Just look for mixes that are sweetened with stevia, not sugar, and which contain at least 20 grams of protein per serving.

Of course, if you’d rather not spend hours in Whole Foods searching for the perfect whey powder, head to my website and check out my formula, WheyLogic.

“Bananas as an energy source during exercise: a metabolomics approach.” PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37479.