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Sports drinks: What are you really putting in your body?

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By DANIELLE DUNNAGAN Eisenhower Army Medical Center We’ve all seen the TV commercials portraying an athlete consuming a sports drink as a quick way to refuel after an exhausting practice. But what’s really in a sports drink? Are they just for athletes? How did they become so popular? The sports drink industry started in 1965 when an assistant coach for the University of Florida football team took a particular interest in why the summer heat was affecting his players’ performance at practice. The football staff decided to collaborate with a team of scientists at the university to determine a solution to their problem. The results of their research indicated that the football players were not adequately replacing carbohydrates, fluids or electrolytes following exercise and thus a product named “Gatorade” was developed. In general, sports drinks are typically a calculated blend of carbohydrates, electrolytes and water. Simplified, this translates to a water-based beverage with sugar, salt and sometimes a few extra micronutrients added in. Generally our bodies are comprised of approximately 60 to 70 percent water. We need water for digestion, energy and oxygen transport, and temperature regulation. We lose water every day, mostly through urination and perspiration (sweat), and it’s up to us to replace it through what we eat and drink. However, sweat is made up of more than just water alone. We also lose sodium (salt), potassium and other micronutrients such as calcium and magnesium when we sweat. These nutrients, also referred to as electrolytes, are found in many of these foods we eat and help maintain fluid balance and assist in muscle and nerve regulation. Many Americans already consume more salt than what is needed in a day, therefore, it is important to be mindful about how much of these electrolytes are we consuming versus losing during exercise. Maintaining a balance of these electrolytes and water in our blood minimizes risk for dehydration. This is why sports drinks characteristically claim they contain added electrolytes for optimal hydration. That leaves only carbohydrates to explain. This nutrient is our body’s main source of energy and can be found in a variety of foods and beverages such as grains, fruit, milk and even some vegetables. During exercise, our body’s energy levels become depleted. These fuel levels, more specifically known as muscle glycogen stores, must be replaced by consuming carbohydrates, often found in sports drinks as sugar. Sugar is a “simple” or “refined” form of carbohydrate that provides easily available energy for our muscles but lacks any extra nutritional value. For this reason, it is important to remember that we can maximize our nutrition when refueling after exercise with whole and minimally processed meals or snacks such as a piece of fruit paired with a glass of milk.