By Reid Creager
It’s a regular routine for countless health-conscious people: some moderate cardio and/or weight training, maybe a 10- or 15-minute run followed by a half-hour with barbells or resistance equipment, all fueled by or finished with their favorite sports drink.
Researcher David Nieman says that’s a calorie calamity.
Although regular physical activity is good for the heart and has psychological benefits, he said drinking sugar-heavy concoctions for added energy isn’t going to help the casual exerciser lose weight. And he said the future of sports drinks is an all-natural sugar cocktail that provides more benefits than the highly popular drinks we’re consuming now.
The biggest misconception about sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade and Propel is that “there’s one healthy drink for everybody,” said Nieman, a professor and director at the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory, at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. “Gatorade, for example, is specially formulated for heavy exertion.
“People think that after any kind of exercise, you should have a sports drink. The only people who really need this kind of sugar support during exercise are those who are going 75 minutes or longer. Once you’ve been out there 75 minutes, and I don’t care what the exercise is, your muscle glycogen stores start to get depleted – that’s the sugar that’s stored in our muscles – and you just simply can’t put out the intensity. With the added sugar intake, you’re able to maintain that intensity longer.
“For people who are just going out for 30 or 45 minutes of running, cycling, it’s foolish to use those beverages. Why take away all the calories you just burned by drinking sugar when really you don’t need that sugar at all? All you need to do is drink water and keep your food intake under control.”
Sugar’s optimal mix
Nieman, who has conducted extensive nutrition research with Gatorade and other major brands, says “sugar” shouldn’t be a bad word in connection with exercise. “It isn’t the sugar, per se, that causes the weight gain. It’s taking in more calories than you burn.
“A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If the calories you’re taking in are more than what you’re burning, you’re going to gain weight.”
That said, sugar is “really, really a benefit” during exercise in the right situation, he said. “It’s like magic. An athlete is foolish not to use it.”
Through research, Nieman said, “we know that a 6 percent carbohydrate beverage is about the optimal amount. That translates to 60 grams of sugar per liter. As a rough rule of thumb, you want to be taking in 16 grams of sugar every 15 minutes of intense exercise.
“Gatorade has 60 grams of a sugar mix per liter. So it’s a 6 percent sugar drink. During heavy exertion like running, bicycling, etc., taking about a liter or so of a sports drink that’s designed to give the right amount of sugar – 60 grams per hour – actually elevates blood glucose levels. This allows the athlete to maintain the pace longer.
“It’s a dramatic effect; we’ve measured this in the lab. At the same time, it actually decreases the stress hormone response and knocks down some of the inflammation.”
Nieman said that Gatorade, which has 80 percent of the sports drink market worldwide, is “as good as any sports beverage for supplying sugar in the right proportions. But there’s a big movement to find Gatorade substitutes” in the search to supply more antioxidants and nutrients.
Last year, NCRC researchers conducted a study with Dole Food that compared the health benefits from a carbohydrate sports drink with benefits from bananas when consumed during intense cycling.
Trained cyclists consumed either 1 cup of a carbohydrate drink or half a banana every 15 minutes during a 75-kilometer simulated road race of 2.5 to 3 hours. Blood samples before and after were analyzed at the NCRC metabolomics laboratory for more than 100 metabolites – molecules produced by metabolism.
Data showed that performance was the same and that bananas had more nutritional benefits. Specifically, bananas provided antioxidants not found in sports drinks, as well as fiber, potassium and vitamin B-6, the study showed. In addition, bananas have a healthier blend of sugars than sports drinks have, it said. The study was published in the online journal PLOS ONE, published by the nonprofit Public Library of Science.
“We found that sugar that’s in the banana is very similar to what’s in Gatorade,” Nieman said. “It has a sucrose/glucose/fructose mix and comes packaged with nutrients, a lot of what we call polyphenols (oxidants from plant foods) that are beneficial chemicals that help protect against disease.
“With an athlete who’s about to go out for an hour and a half of hard cycling, I recommend a banana just before with water; then drinking water; then maybe halfway in, eat another banana; and then maybe one after you’re done. That would give you over 300 calories of carbohydrates that would definitely help you get through that intense cycling,” Nieman said, adding that the research translates to any vigorous exercise.
He said bananas are easy to transport, are one-third the cost of some sports drinks and are a healthier way to get the sugar.
Going for cocktails
Bananas are one of several fruits routinely studied for their nutritional benefits. Raisins provide fiber and micronutrients such as potassium and iron without any added sugar, artificial flavor or colors, according to the California Raisin Marketing Board. Nieman said the NCRC recently conducted a study with watermelon, which contains nutrients including lycopene, beta carotene and citrulline.
Given these myriad ingredients and potential benefits, the push is on to combine as many of them as possible in what Nieman called “an all-natural sugar cocktail.” He said this could revolutionize the $4billion-a-year sports drink industry.
“I think the future of the sports drink market is going to be trying to package the sugar with healthier companion components,” Nieman said.
“We have been especially interested in the polyphenols and the flavonoids (naturally occurring plant pigments that have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, asthma and stroke).
“We’ve found that if you have a cocktail of those flavonoids fruits in just the right proportion to go along with the sugar that there could be some added fitness and health benefits to the athlete. That’s where our research is headed right now. We’re working with some big companies.”
Such a mixture could also provide convenience benefits, he said.
“In the sports beverage, the sugar will be mixed with fluid extracts in just the right way so that all the athlete has to do is carry their water bottle and drink from that.”