Quench Your Thirst Without the Added Sugar

— Written By Emily Troutman and last updated by
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With the continuing summer heat, it’s easy to turn to soft drinks, lemonade, juice boxes, energy drinks and sports drinks to quench our thirst. While these beverages are convenient and tasty, they are also expensive and high in sugar and calories.

The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has significantly increased in the past decade. Teenagers now obtain 10-15 percent of their calories from these beverages. Sugar-sweetened beverages include soda, sports drinks, sweet tea, fruit-flavored drinks such as punch and lemonade, and any other beverage (even coffee) if sugar is added to it. Excess consumption of these beverages is associated with weight gain, poor nutrition, and a higher risk for obesity and diabetes.

Sports drinks were created in 1965 as a supplement for athletes to replace carbohydrates and electrolytes lost during prolonged vigorous activity, especially those performed in high heat and humidity. Sports drinks typically contain water, electrolytes (sodium and potassium), and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can come in the form of high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, brown rice syrup, cane juice, and/or maltodextrin. While designed for athletes, these beverages are common among youth and consumed by many adults who simply like the taste or who are looking for a different kind of beverage.

Sports drinks, like all sugar-sweetened beverages, supply calories, but contain few, if any, essential nutrients. Citric acid, a common ingredient found in beverages, erodes tooth enamel and, too often, sugar-sweetened beverages displace other nutrients needed by the body. Studies show a decrease in the consumption of calcium, vitamin D, folate, and iron among children and teens who consume sugar-sweetened drinks.

The benefits of sports drinks are appropriate only for athletes or individuals engaging in prolonged vigorous physical activity, and/or those activities performed in high temperatures and humidity. These activities include football training during summer months, marathon training and races, competitive soccer and tennis matches, and long cycling races. Sports drinks have been shown to decrease fatigue and replace sodium and potassium lost in sweat under these circumstances.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children who are participating in vigorous exercise should drink water before, during, and after exercise. If children are participating in prolonged vigorous activity in hot, humid conditions for more than one hour, small amounts of sports drinks may be appropriate. However, for the typical child or teen engaging in routine physical activity for less than three hours in normal weather conditions, the use of sports drinks in place of water is unnecessary.

Sports drink manufacturers target children and teens and market their products as a healthy alternative to soda. While most sports drinks do contain less sugar than soda, they often contain more sodium. Given the already elevated levels of sugar and sodium in a typical American youths’ diet, consumption of sports drinks and other sweetened beverages is a concern.

Coca-Cola’s sports drink, Powerade Play, is advertised with the tagline “the sports drink for the young athlete”. The re-branding of Gatorade as “G” in 2008 was meant to grab teenagers’ attention. In 2010, these ads were ranked among the top five most-advertised products seen by children and teens; and in 2011, they had more than 3 million Facebook fans and nearly 30,000 Twitter followers.

More than 40 percent of parents believe that sports drinks are healthy for children, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that most children and teens should not consume sports drinks. It is great that schools reduced the amount of soda available in vending machines, but most have been replaced with sports drinks.

Television ads would have us believe that whenever we sweat, we need to have a sports drink to recover. In fact, sports drinks are recommended only for individuals engaged in prolonged vigorous physical activity non-stop for more than one hour. Sports drinks are NOT recommended for the vast majority of youth and adults engaged in normal physical activity.

Thirst is, indeed, a sign that your body needs to be hydrated, but water will do the trick, without adding sodium and sugar to your diet. Dehydration can put a strain on your heart, which limits your ability to be active. It is important to be well hydrated prior to exercising, especially in the heat. To stay hydrated, drink 2 cups of water about 2 hours before you begin exercise; drink another 1½ cups during every hour of exercise; and 1 more cup within 30 minutes after you exercise. For most activities, consuming water before, during, and after physical activity provides all the necessary hydration.

When you are not exercising, you should sip on water all day long. If your urine color is light yellow or almost clear, you are well hydrated. If not, you are not drinking enough water.

If plain water doesn’t satisfy your taste buds, there are many ways to flavor water. A small amount of sliced fresh fruit added to a pitcher of water in the refrigerator provides a tasty beverage that’s available anytime. It only takes a few slices per container of water and any combination of fruit will work – lemons, limes, strawberries, kiwi, oranges, etc. You can also freeze 100 percent fruit juice in ice cube trays to add a kick of flavor and color to your water. Herbs are a great complement to fruit flavors and almost any herb will work depending on your personal preference. Try pineapple and mint together or blackberry and sage. If you like having smaller bottles that are easy to grab and go, just refill bottles with one of these homemade waters.

If you find it hard to give up your favorite sweet beverage, there are a few strategies you could try. If you drink regular soda, mix half diet and half regular until you can switch to all diet or water. Do the same with juice – mix with plain or sparkling water, gradually moving to all water with just a splash of juice. If you must indulge….enjoy your favorite beverage, but limit the amount. Select smaller cans, cups, bottles, or glasses instead of large or supersized options.

Sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to excess calories, unnecessary sodium, displaced nutrients, and poor dental health. Water is the recommended and optimal fluid for hydration and good health. It’s convenient, cheap, and better for you. Nothing compares to the healthiest beverage of all – water!