It’s marketed as a sports drink, but Gatorade isn’t only being consumed by athletes. Children drink it at lunch or after soccer practice, and it has even developed a reputation as a hangover cure. But while Gatorade may contain less sugar than soda, is it actually good for you?
According to Gatorade's website, the drink was “born in the lab” when researchers looked at why athletes were falling ill after strenuous exercise in the heat. They found that these athletes were losing electrolytes and fluid with exertion, but not replacing them. Gatorade was developed to replace these crucial electrolytes, as well as carbohydrates, while hydrating at the same time.
The “Good” of Gatorade
When you exercise, it’s important to stay hydrated. While water is the most logical form of hydration, sports drinks like Gatorade contain sugar and electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Sports drinks can help replace what we lose during longer duration exercise, especially in the heat.
Advocates of sports drinks claim that the electrolytes and carbohydrates help athletes refuel and rehydrate. According to Gatorade, electrolytes help regulate the body’s “fluid balance” while the carbs provide energy. They claim their product hydrates better than water because of these additional ingredients.
Some research backs their claims. A report from the University of California, Berkeley says that sports drinks might be better than water for children and athletes who engage in prolonged, vigorous physical activity for over one hour, especially in hot conditions. However, you should note that those exercising less than 60 to 90 minutes may not need Gatorade to maintain or improve performance.
So, what about use of sports drinks for the average person?
The “Bad” of Gatorade
The vast majority of people who drink Gatorade are not athletes. Also, one study found that adolescents who drink energy or sports drinks are more likely to smoke and play video games. And according to the Berkeley study, most people who drink sports drinks at least once a day aren’t as physically active as they should be.
A 12 oz. serving of Gatorade’s Thirst Quencher contains 21 grams of sugar. But because a regular bottle of Gatorade contains 32 oz., you’re actually getting 56 grams of sugar.
While that’s still less sugar per ounce than your average soda, it’s not exactly healthy. In fact, Berkeley researchers say the sugar in sports drinks may be contributing to the child obesity epidemic by increasing their caloric intake.
For people who are less active, getting extra sugar and sodium throughout the day is not necessary, nor recommended. The extra calories from a sports drink could contribute to weight gain, and the extra sodium could increase the risk of high blood pressure over time. For people who are not exercising for at least one hour, 5 days per week, water is the best bet for staying hydrated.
Make the Right Decision for Your Kids
Experts suggest parents limit their children’s consumption of sports drinks like Gatorade, precisely because of their sugar content. A researcher who has worked with Gatorade in the past told NPR that Gatorade shouldn’t be singled out as the “bad guy,” but that parents need to evaluate sugar consumption from all sources when helping their child make the healthiest decisions.
For most children, whether playing soccer or playing a video game, water remains the best source of hydration, and foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are the best source of carbohydrates and electrolyte replacement.