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Study Roundup: Is Coconut Water Really a Perfect Sports Drink?

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The Gist

coconut waterCoconut water is currently being hyped as the all-natural sports drink. But how true is that claim? Does it really work? New research published yesterday provides some new insight into this question. Scientists found that the chemicals in coconut water make it an excellent sports drink for light to moderate exercise, but for intensive or long workouts, it falls short. 

The Expert Take

Healthline talked to Erica Giovinazzo, MS, RD, a Clinical Dietitian in New York City, to get to the bottom of the story.

Sports drinks are used to rehydrate after a workout or give an extra energy boost while exercising, by replenishing electrolytes like sodium and potassium and providing carbohydrates (glucose) for energy. While commercial drinks like Gatorade are designed to have the right balance of potassium sodium and carbohydrates, coconut water has a very similar makeup—naturally.

New research found that coconut water has 5 times more potassium than Gatorade or Powerade, important for preventing muscle cramps and maintaining proper heart function and blood flow. It also has natural sugars to provide energy.

The downside? It has very small amounts of sodium, which can be problematic for people doing intense exercise for longer than an hour, who lose a lot of sodium through sweat.

If the blood has too little sodium in it, it can cause very bad cramps or a nauseous feeling. This is important to keep in mind as marathon season approaches, said Giovinazzo. “Low sodium is a risk for people who do marathons or half marathons and aren't used to it, and don't know what kinds of things they need to get,” she said.

For light or even moderate exercise—like what the average gym-goer does in a session—just plain old water is sufficient, Giovinazzo said. For longer workouts, coconut water can be also be great choice for natural rehydration, as long as you get the sodium from another source.

“Some good options to replenish sodium are salted nuts or trail mix, beef or turkey jerky, pretzels, pickles, or, my favorite—a roasted seaweed snack,” Giovinazzo said. “For those who need to stick to liquids, you could alternate between coconut water and either chicken broth, cold miso soup, or even pickle juice if you like the taste. If you want to stick with just coconut water, add a little more than 1/8 of a teaspoon salt to every 20 ounces of coconut water to meet the sodium recommendation.”

People who aren’t very active but are trying to lose weight should skip the coconut water, Giovinazzo said. There are 45-60 calories in an 8-ounce bottle, not to mention some brands contain added sugar. When you’re drinking calories, you don’t feel as full and can end up putting on weight.

Coconut water is a natural way to rehydrate after moderate exercise because it’s high in potassium, and can provide energy from the natural sugars. But if your workout is intense or lasts more than an hour, you’ll need a way to replenish sodium too. If you’re not active and trying to lose weight, be wary of the high calories in coconut water. Instead, opt for regular water, or a banana to get that potassium boost.

Source and Method

Research led by Chhandashri Bhattacharya, Ph.D of Indiana Southeast University was presented Monday at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

Other Research

Last year a Canadian study on coconut water concluded coconut water didn’t have enough added hydration benefit above regular water to be worth the extra cost and calories. 

Still many nutritionists tout the benefits of nature’s drink. EmpowerHER has a good round-up of their feedback here

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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