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Could Sports Drinks Be Making You Fat?

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published February 27, 2013

The typical sports drink contains 50 calories per 8 ounces and 14 grams of sugar. The overall nutritional profile of your average sports drink is similar to that of a cola or energy drink. Research has shown that consuming a lot of soft drinks causes weight gain. Therefore it’s not irrational to wonder whether all those sports drinks you’re drinking as an athlete are fattening you up, or at least preventing you from getting leaner.

Fear not. While using sports drinks inappropriately could cause you to gain weight, using them correctly will not. The people who consume the most sports drinks are actually among the leanest people in society, because they get the most exercise. Here are the rules for sports drink usage that will make these products a friend, not a foe, to your goal of attaining your ideal racing weight.

Rule #1: Don’t drink sports drinks outside of activity.
The sugars in a sports drink have starkly different effects on the body depending on when the drink is consumed. If you sip a sports drink while sitting in front of the television, most of those sugars will be converted to fat and stored in adipose tissue. But if you consume the very same product during exercise, the sugars will go straight to your muscles, where they will be converted into energy for muscle contractions.

The only other time besides during a workout or race that you should use a sports drink is immediately after a workout or race. At that time your muscles are glycogen depleted, and the sugars in your sports drink will be used to replenish those glycogen stores and will not be packed into fat cells.

Rule #2: Don’t use a sports drink in every workout.
Sports drinks are designed to enhance endurance performance, and they work. But maximum performance is not something you seek in every workout. Research has shown that sports drinks only enhance performance in high-intensity efforts lasting an hour or longer. Go ahead and use a sports drink during those kinds of workouts. It will enable you to push harder in them and get more out of them. But don’t bother dragging a sports drink along with you for easier sessions. Just use water or a zero-calorie electrolyte solution for hydration in those cases.

Rule #3: Consider using a sports drink with protein.
In most sports drinks all of the calories come from carbohydrate, but a few also contain small amounts of protein or amino acids. Studies have shown that sports drinks combining carbohydrate and protein boost performance in a more calorically efficient manner than sports drinks that provide energy through carbs alone. One study reported that a carb-protein sports drink containing 40 calories per 8 ounces enhanced endurance performance as much as a carb-only sport drink containing 50 calories per 8 ounces. So if you’re concerned about sports drink calories, you can reduce the number of calories you get from sports drinks without sacrificing performance by using one with protein.

A Performance Mindset
That last phrase—“without sacrificing performance”—is an important point. Many athletes mix their sports drinks weak or use low-calorie sports drinks because they fear that sports drinks calories will “neutralize” the calorie-burning effect of the workouts themselves. But it’s important to keep in mind that the whole point of using a sports drink is to maximize performance, and a watered-down or sugar-free sports drink will not maximize your performance. In the long run, anything you do as an athlete that helps you perform better will also make you leaner. So if you’re going to use a sports drink at all, commit to getting the full performance-enhancing effect.

There’s a second reason why the notion that sports drink calories neutralize the calorie-burning effect of exercise is unfounded. Studies have shown that when athletes consume carbohydrate during exercise, they eat less during the rest of the day. So by using a sports drink or whatever during workouts you get the advantage of better performance without the disadvantage of increased total daily calorie intake.

Check out Matt’s book, Racing Weight Quick-Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.

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