Electrolyte drinks have become increasingly popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts to replenish lost fluids and minerals during intense physical activity. However, a contentious issue has arisen: should electrolyte drinks have sugar?
In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the debate surrounding sugar in electrolyte drinks and explore the potential benefits and drawbacks of each perspective. By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of whether sugar belongs in your electrolyte drink of choice!
What are the Components of a Sports Drink?
There are three main components of a sports drink and that includes fluid, electrolytes, and sugar. What you need in your sports drink will depend on what activity and work you do in training.
This one is obvious! Without water, electrolytes have no purpose in our bodies so it is important to include water when taking electrolyte supplements.
Making sure you are consuming enough water on a daily basis is the first step to proper hydration, no matter how many sports drinks you have! Your body is made up of 60% fluid, so to put it simply, we wouldn’t exist without it! When our bodies have a low fluid balance we experience symptoms of dehydration which can affect our mental, emotional, and physical state.
Some sports drinks have also been formulated based on scientific ratios between fluid and sodium/carbohydrate concentration. Hydration companies usually advertise this to create different products to fit different training needs. If our sports drinks have too much carbohydrates it can cause GI distress or discomfort.
Also sometimes we don’t need carbohydrates! But sometimes we do! And if our sports drinks don’t have enough sodium, we won’t be replenishing our losses, which can cause dehydration. It is all very individualized, but no matter what having enough fluid is essential to proper hydration.
Electrolytes are most likely what have you searching for a hydration product and the amount contained in products vary greatly. It is important to replace the losses that occur during training because electrolytes are involved in so many vital processes in our bodies. Choosing a sports drink with electrolytes that focuses on sodium is what to look for in an electrolyte beverage.
Sports/electrolyte drinks often include carbohydrates in the form of sugar. There is a reason for this that doesn’t just include adding some sweetness to the drink. Carbohydrates provide an energy source during training and should be included in training sessions that are longer than an hour.
What is the Purpose of Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are ions that work to maintain our body’s normal state, and that means balancing electrical charges (taking you back to chemistry) and performing a large number of mechanisms in the body through action potentials.
Although it may seem super scientific, the bottom line is we need the correct amount of electrolytes in our body to survive. They are everywhere in our cells and are vital to life.
Why Do I Need Them?
In our sweat, there are five electrolytes that we lose. The majority lost are sodium and chloride (table salt), with traces of magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Because they are so important for keeping your body in balance (aka homeostasis) you need to replace the loss from sweat so your body can retain normal levels.
Electrolytes like sodium also help to retain water in our bodies, helping us replenish the water we also lost in sweat. Magnesium and potassium are involved in muscle contraction and calcium is involved in bone formation as well as blood pressure.
Role of Sugar in Hydration Drinks
Sugar, the “bad guy”. Although Sports Dietitian like me, work to shine the light on how important carbohydrates and sugar is in training, there is always going to be someone saying the opposite.
You might be wondering, why are carbohydrates and sugar tied together? This is because our body breaks down carbohydrates and turns them into blood glucose, which is also known as blood sugar. Glucose is what provides a source of energy to our body, and it is what our brain prefers to run on. “Sugar” is easily digested so it won’t cause adverse GI side effects.
Hydration drinks that include sugar are most likely formulated to add fast-digesting sugars that won’t be harsh on the stomach and will go straight toward your bloodstream with little to no gut distress. This will give you some added energy in training and will help to keep you training at your hardest.
Another role of carbohydrates in hydration drinks also includes the Sodium-Glucose cotransporter (SGLT) mechanism. This process helps sodium and glucose be transported into our bloodstream more rapidly than they would if we had just one or the other.
Do I Need the Sugar?
Now that we have talked about the importance of sugar during training, do you think you need it? Carbohydrates play a role in giving us energy. They are important to include when training exceeds an hour. This will decrease your time to fatigue and can increase your performance due to the added energy in the body.
If your training session is less than an hour, you may not need the carbohydrates. Drinks without sugar do have a purpose. For example, when you will be spending a lot of time outside sweating, but aren’t training so you don’t need the extra energy boost.
It is important to know what your needs are as an athlete when it comes to hydration drinks. There are many options on the market and there is an option for everyone. However, you shouldn’t be afraid of the sugar!
The main components of a hydration drink should be fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates. The fluid provides hydration, the electrolytes help our bodies retain water as well as work properly, and carbohydrates give us energy while also helping out electrolytes be absorbed more effectively.
The role of electrolytes in sports drinks is to replenish the losses we may have had in sweat. The major electrolytes lost in sweat include sodium and chloride. Electrolytes are vital for all of our body’s processes since they are in every cell of our bodies.
Sugar is included in electrolyte drinks to increase the absorption of electrolytes and create an energy source during training. Carbohydrates are important to include when your training session is longer than 1 hour so you can improve your performance and be able to train for longer periods of time.
Sugar in electrolyte beverages serves a purpose and it should be included if training time exceeds an hour. Hydration, electrolytes, and other nutrition topics are regularly discussed with my athletes in the Performance Fueling Club (PFC). PFC is an online sports nutrition coaching program that helps athletes with flexible on-demand content and live nutrition coaching with a sports dietitian.
If you are looking for guidance on hydration, I encourage you to sign up today. We currently have open enrollment, and I would love to help support you in getting to your goals!