5 Reasons Why Sports Drinks Are Just as Bad as Soda

Last Update: March 11, 2020

With the Olympics about to kick off in Rio De Janeiro, we can expect to be inundated with a number of things. Touching recaps from Bob Costas every evening. A fierce women’s gymnastics team. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s final gold medal rush. And advertisements—lots of them.

Many of the ads will be for brands like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and other junk food manufacturers—ironic, given that many of the elite athletes who hawk those foods don’t consume them. More insidious, though, are athlete endorsements of sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade. These are billed as performance enhancers—even good for you. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to a vicious takedown of the beverages published by the Washington Post this week.

Here are the top five reasons why sports drinks are no bueno for most of us, and what you should reach for instead.

Most people who drink them don’t need them.

Gatorade was created for elite athletes as a way to replace huge amounts of electrolytes lost during intense workouts. The sports drink industry is worth nearly $7 billion,  and only a tiny fraction of those sales come from high-performing athletes. Manufacturers market a problem most people don’t have: dehydration. Researchers say overhydration, or hyponatremia, is a bigger problem—even for marathoners. That means that for almost all children and teenagers, and most adults, there simply isn’t a need for these drinks.

They’re as bad as soda.

If you don’t let your kids drink soda, you should skip sports drinks, too. Most sports drinks contain as much sugar and chemicals as soda, and sometimes more. Don’t blindly trust the amounts listed on the nutrition panel, either: many sports drinks contain 2 or 2 1/2 servings per bottle, so the sugar total may need to be multiplied accordingly.

Many have corporate ties to junk food.

Despite projecting an image as being healthy or even “natural,” the biggest sports drinks come from multi-billion-dollar corporations with deep ties to the junk food industry. Soda companies, faced with widespread backlash about the health of their products, have turned to making sports drinks en masse with hopes that kids and parents will be fooled by the “healthy” spin. Bottom line: if you don’t like Coca-Cola, then don’t drink Powerade—another product of the Atlanta-based behemoth.

Most are backed up by misleading claims and inaccurate studies.

“Big Sports Drink” has often bought the allegiance of leading academic researchers and publications to push its agenda, according to a 2012 series of reports published in the BMJ. Researchers found that many authors who wrote glowingly about the benefits of sports drinks or warned of the dangers of dehydration have deep financial ties to the industry:

“These links between sports medicine journals and the sports drink industry may help to explain a characteristic of the sports drinks literature that is familiar to those who have analyzed drug trials over the past 30 years—the relative (or almost complete) absence of negative studies,” the study’s authors write.

When claims are made about sports drinks in advertising, there are often no sources cited to back those claims.

“It is virtually impossible for the public to make informed choice about the benefits and harms of advertised sports products based on the available evidence,” the article’s authors concluded.

They distract us from nature’s superior (and free!) “sports drink”: water.

It’s true: Water, with an orange or banana on the side, is always the best bet when it comes to hydration and electrolyte and vitamin replacement. You’ll never hear this from Gatorade or Powerade, though, who stand to make huge profits off of the ignorance of American consumers.

If you must have a sports drink, try making your own. This one is made with coconut water to replace electrolytes, chia seeds for healthy fats, and raw honey for a sugar boost—plus, it tastes way better than the processed stuff.

And remember—90 percent of the time, you’ve got everything you need to stay hydrated flowing right out of your kitchen faucet.

Photo credit: Getty Images

This article is related to:

Food, Health, News, Nutrition

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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