We've all seen those commercials starring sweaty athletes who just scored big-time, chugging brightly-colored beverages. Sports drinks have been marketed as the athlete's choice for fuel for decades. But while these popular drinks do provide some important nutrients that can help you perform at your best, there are healthier and more effective ways to fuel up.
At their core, drinks like Powerade and Gatorade provide three essential elements with benefits: Water to hydrate and replace fluids lost through sweat, carbohydrates in the form of sugar to provide energy and electrolytes to control fluid balance and maintain energy levels.
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Sports drinks are designed to be sipped on during hard exercise that lasts for more than an hour or 90 minutes, Nancy Clark, RD, a sports nutritionist and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Clark says that soccer players, marathon runners or any exerciser who's going the distance can benefit from this kind of fuel.
"Electrolytes and carbs help athletes refuel and rehydrate," Clark explains, but it's important to remember that "athletes were athletes for years before sports drinks came along." She points out that athletes can perform just as well without these drinks, as long as they focus on getting enough water, sodium and calories.
In other words, you can rely on many of the foods you love in order to perform at your best instead of handing over your hard-earned dollars for a bottle full of calories and sugar. Below are some found-in-nature foods that can help athletes get the sustenance they seek.
1. Better for Hydration: Water
"Gatorade claims their product hydrates better than water because of [electrolytes]," says Clark — but for most exercisers, water will surely do the trick. "There are a lot of people concerned about electrolytes who have no reason to be, Clark says, adding that it's all marketing and that the industry has done a great job at making people think they need them."
Unless you're exercising for prolonged periods of time, tap water — which does contain small amounts of electrolytes, per an August 2013 article in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis — is a great Gatorade alternative. Unlike sports drinks, water is free of calories and sugar. And, combined with a healthy diet, water can give you everything your body needs to feel good when you're moving.
2. Better for Potassium: Bananas
Many sports drinks list potassium, an electrolyte, on the nutrition label. Potassium helps maintain hydration and is lost through typical bodily functions like sweating, urinating and pooping, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "It's unlikely someone would become potassium depleted from exercise," says Clark, adding, still, that there's no harm in being mindful of including the nutrient in your diet.
A good pick for potassium is the banana. Just one medium banana contains approximately 422 milligrams of potassium, according to the USDA — while a 12-ounce bottle of Gatorade, for example, contains just 55.8 milligrams of the nutrient for almost the same amount of calories, per the USDA. Research suggests that potassium can potentially reduce fitness-related muscle soreness. Plus, the fruit is easy on the stomach, which makes it a great food for exercisers.
For potassium-seekers that are averse to bananas, there are plenty of other foods that contain an abundance of the vital nutrient. Whole fruits and vegetables like avocados, beans, oranges, Brussels sprouts and papaya are all great sources of potassium.
3. Better for Sugar: Raisins
Athletes need the types of carbohydrates their bodies can quickly convert to energy, especially when they're exercising for long periods of time. Luckily, there are endless, delicious options for a speedy shot of real sugar that go beyond the refined stuff that's usually packed into sports drinks and gels. Raisins are a superb option, not only because they're portable, but also because they pack in some potassium — 210 milligrams per one ounce, according to the USDA.
"Research shows that athletes can perform just as well on raisins as they can on sports gels," says Clark. "[Raisins] give them the carbohydrates they need for energy in handy, little bite-sized pieces." A September 2017 article published in Food & Nutrition Research also concluded that eating raisins is associated with better nutrient intake and diet quality, and may be an indicator for those who lead a healthier lifestyle.
For extra benefits, add a pinch of salt to your raisins before your long runs, suggests Clark. Drink some water along with your snack, and you've basically just ingested the same nutrients you'd find in a sports drink — for a fraction of the cost. Other foods you might consider for a burst of energy include dried fruits (think mangoes, cranberries and dates), dark chocolate and natural fruit leathers.
4. Better for Sodium: Salt
Sodium — which can be lost through sweat — supports hydration, but you don't need to replenish the electrolytes by guzzling a bright blue beverage. "The amount of sodium that's in most sports drinks is really quite small," says Clark. "It's not to replace the salt lost in sweat, but to promote fluid retention."
Clark says that the amount of sodium lost during exercise is "sort of insignificant in the scheme of things for the average person," and most of us don't have to worry about keeping our salt intake high — the American diet takes care of that for us. In this way, the messaging is confusing; most Americans are eating too much salt, which is associated with a host of health risks, according to the NIH.
For the athlete that needs to consider upping their salt intake — or for the exerciser who's a serious sweater, says Clark — this can be done by simply adding a bit more table salt to meals, enjoying some salted peanut butter or slurping up chicken broth. Clark says she used to work with one ultra-runner who'd actually nosh on a bouillon cube during their events. That trick, however, might be a bit too salty for the rest of us!
5. Better for Magnesium: Nuts and Seeds
Magnesium is another electrolyte that's included in many sports drinks. Magnesium supports the immune system, brain function and bone strength; and research suggests magnesium deficiency can have an adverse effect on exercise, according to a September 2017 article in Nutrients.
Clark says not to worry: If you're eating a balanced diet, you're likely getting enough of this nutrient. "If you're eating nuts, leafy greens and whole grains on a daily basis, then you've got a good stockpile," she explains.
For a hefty dose of the stuff, incorporate magnesium-rich foods like almonds, cashews and peanuts into your diet. Black beans, spinach and edamame are also solid sources of the nutrient, and all of these will deliver the benefits without the artificial sweeteners that are typically found in sports drinks.
- Journal of Food Composition and Analysis: “The Mineral Content of Tap Water in United States Households"
- National Institutes of Health: “Potassium”
- USDA’s FoodData Central: “Bananas, Raw”
- USDA’s FoodData Central: “Gatorade G Sports Drink”
- USDA’s FoodData Central: “Raisins”
- Food & Nutrition Research: “Association of Raisin Consumption with Nutrient Intake, Diet Quality, and Health Risk Factors in US Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001–2012”
- National Institutes of Health: “The Salty Stuff: Salt, Blood Pressure and Your Health”
- Nutrients: “Can Magnesium Enhance Exercise Performance?”