Fueling Up: Fads, Facts

Teal blue, flamingo pink and crystal clear thirst quenchers entice us into stores everywhere. Enhanced waters, energy drinks, sports drinks and fitness waters, who needs them and why?

Some drinks promise lightening fast reaction times and others offer to boost immunity. Do they help health, or is it all hype? Do fitness drinks promote energy surge in every-day exercise or give us the edge in sports performance? Why not guzzle plain water?

Factually, the best sports and fitness drinks (Gatorade, Powerade) do supply us with rapidly absorbable fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat and do quickly replace energy expended in sustained exercise. Every cell in the body is made of 60-80% water and of electrolytes, special salts that carry an electric charge as gatekeepers to the bodies’ cellular metabolism. Water is essential; you cannot live without it. But water lacks key electrolytes and energy that the body looses in an hour of exercise.

Stimulant drinks like Red Bull are all the rage. However, they may be dangerous to our health. For a fleeting time they may make you feel like you can soar, but their jolt is not worth the risk to your health. Even one small slender container can leave you feeling edgy instead of energetic. Concoctions of caffeine and potentially toxic amounts of exotic sounding ingredients like taurine and guarana may brew body blues.

Red Bull and other energy drinks have been implicated in the sudden deaths and heart palpitations of teens and adults alike. Is the 1,000 mg of taurine in the can the culprit? Taurine is a molecular building block of life in mammals, an amino acid. The question is, is taurine essential to the diet? Yes, for cats that is, says John Lombardini, PhD, professor of Pharmacy at Texas Tech. “Taurine is an essential amino acid for feline health.” We do generate it in our body and utilize it for necessary body maintenance (while cats need to eat it), but no one knows if toxic levels can be reached by imbibing it. Many vitamins are essential, but overdoses are toxic.

Do not mix energy drinks with alcohol. And do not double or triple up on the cans at once. You consume about 300mg of caffeine, which “is too much for most people’s systems,” says Greg Stewart, MD, from Tulane University Institute of Sports Medicine. Tolerable limits of caffeine are highly variable. Plus caffeine is a diuretic, and you loose about half of what you drink in urine with caffeinated drinks.

The worst enemy to exercise performance is dehydration. If “you run, swim, bike or ski non-stop, at a rapid pace for more than an hour at a time,” says Sizer in “The Fitness Triad: Motivation, Training, and Nutrition” or if you “compete in tennis, soccer or hockey for hours with repeat demands for bursts of intense activity,” then by all means refuel frequently with carbohydrate and electrolyte (c/e) elixirs.

Properly formulated sports drinks contain about 6 % carbohydrate (14g/8oz.). Research clearly shows that the 6% carbohydrate concentration is absorbed as fast as water but also provides time-critical energy and electrolytes. Beverages like soda (and Red Bull) with too much carbohydrate slow fluid absorption, and along with carbonation, cause stomach distension and discomfort, discouraging fluid intake when it is most needed to enhance performance.

During intense exercise, we sweat, and the loss of body fluids and life-critical electrolytes (like sodium and potassium) can reach 1-3 quarts an hour. It is typical for a runner to loose six cups of fluids an hour. Ordinarily we loose 10 cups of water a day (2 cups from sweat, 2 breathing and 6 in waste removal).

If you do not replenish the fluid/electrolyte balance in blood plasma, the body cannot cool itself. The nerves and their pathways do not function. Both your muscle energy reserves (glycogen stores) and blood glucose levels needed for a mental competitive edge will plummet. Your heart rate may rise rapidly, causing potentially fatal conditions. To avert this, drink 2-3 cups of fluid before an event. Drink one cup every 15 minutes during an event or 1 qt/hr. After the event, drink at least two cups of fluid for each pound of body weight lost.

During normal daily activity if your mouth ever feels slightly parched, you are already somewhat dehydrated. To avert this, drink when you are thirsty. Drink before you are thirsty. Drink plenty during and after regular exercise. And check your urine for a light yellow tint. This is the body’s easy-to-read gauge of how adequate the fluid level is.

If you are a budding long distance event competitor, beware of “water intoxication.” Large water intake may dilute the blood sodium levels to dangerously low proportions causing hyponatremia. Half of runners with hyponatremia wind up hospitalized, and it is a potentially fatal condition that brings on dizziness, nausea, vomiting and muscle cramps.

In April 2002, Cynthia Lucero, a healthy 28-year old woman who had just completed her doctoral dissertation, ran her last race at the Boston Marathon due to this condition. She over-consumed plain water without proportionally increasing the needed sodium electrolytes she lost in sweat and drowned out with water.

Fatigue, confusion and a lack of coordination can result from blood glucose levels falling below what the nervous system requires for balance. C/E drinks and adequate carbs in the diet of the athlete help prevent this. If you are not an athlete, however, the added calories of sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade at 50 and 70 calories/8 oz. can be counterproductive to weight loss.

Many people find water too plain tasting, and research shows people drink more needed fluids if they offer a mild flavor. Enter the ‘enhanced’ vitamin waters like Propel Fitness by Gatorade at only 10 calories per nicely flavored serving. Enjoy them for taste and for quenching your thirst, but still take a multi-vitamin with them, says Leslie Bonci, director of Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Remember sports and fitness drinks cannot compensate for a lack of a good night’s sleep or take the place of a vitamin-poor, high fat diet.