As the Olympics hold the world’s attention for the next couple of weeks, people may be inspired to get active, to head out with their friends and kick a soccer ball around, to swim, or maybe even to go for a jog. The vast majority of them will sweat like crazy and wonder, what’s the best way to rehydrate? Is it with water or a sports drink? Turns out, we were right: Recent studies from the BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) argue that sports drinks are not the golden ticket to hydration that they’ve been touted as. Actually, the only purpose they serve is to earn money for big companies by suggesting that our natural hydration-regulating mechanism (thirst) just isn’t good enough.
The BMJ released a series of studies that span from the science of sports drinks to the financial motivations behind the sports drinks studies. Turns out that Gatorade, owned by Pepsi Co., and Powerade, owned by Coca-Cola, base their health claims upon research that has been heavily skewed by their parent companies. Sure, staying hydrated is important when undertaking physical activity, but when the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (yes, there actually is one) argues that athletes don’t know how to regulate their own thirst, that’s Pepsi talking, not credible science.
The majority of studies that sports drink brands have undertaken involve testing on high-level athletes (like Michael Phelps and his 10,000-calorie a day diet) who have nutritional needs different from those of the common consumer. One of the studies conducted by the BMJ showed that not all of the claims that sports drink companies make can even be backed up by concrete data. The health claims aren’t subject to stringent reviews either, a choice that can lead to needless consumption of sugar and calories that does anything but help hydrate you.
A commentary by Timothy Noakes, a sports science professor from the University of Cape Town, argues that the way we have come to conceptualize thirst since the advent of sports drinks is essentially flawed. Noakes says, "Humans do not regulate fluid balance on a moment to moment basis… People optimize their hydration status by drinking according to the dictates of thirst." Basically, you don’t need to guzzle your sports drink; your body knows what’s going on. If you’re thirsty, have some water. If you’re not, don’t. So next time you head to the gym, leave that Powerade for the Olympic hopeful.