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Sports drinks have long been marketed as performance-enhancing aids for athletes. But are they really as good for our health as they seem to be?
On hot summer days, teenagers will typically reach for a sweet soft drink. However, according to a recent survey conducted by Cardiff University¹, many are risking tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and gout by regularly drinking sports drinks.
While the study was limited, as it included a relatively small sample of teenagers, the results make for sobering reading. Sports drinks are intended to enhance athletic performance and recovery. However, 90% of those teenagers surveyed stated that they mainly consumed them for their 'nice taste', while 51.4% of girls said they drank the drinks socially. The survey also found that almost 90% had consumed sports drinks, and half consumed the drinks at least twice a week.
The arguments for and against
Are sports drinks good or bad? It depends on whether you exercise intensively and regularly. They might provide a welcome boost for people participating in intense sporting events, such as cross-country runs, netball or football matches. This is because the drinks are typically packed full with sugars and acids, which are energy-rich.
That said, added sugars shouldn't comprise more than 5% of a person's daily calorie intake, which equates to around 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over. The added sugar content in a popular 500ml sports drink is around 18g – and more in the 'energy' version². Such amounts could contribute significantly to tooth decay. What's more, failing to burn off so much sugar through exercise could lead to weight gain and obesity in later life.
Additionally, sugars lack nutrients. Consequently, consuming foods that are high in sugar can often result in eating more calories than required which, in turn, may lead to weight gain and obesity².
The role of marketing
The marketing and wide availability of sports drinks may play a big role in increasing risks among teenagers. Advertising showcases elite athletes winning races, while shops up and down the country stock sports drink brands at affordable prices.
A warning from the British Dental Association accompanying the study report stated: "Sports drinks are rarely a healthy choice and marketing them to the general population, and young people in particular, is grossly irresponsible. Elite athletes might have reason to use them, but for almost everyone else they represent a real risk to both their oral and their general health."
In response, the British Soft Drinks Association said: "Sports drinks are designed for vigorous physical activity and should be consumed in moderation. This year, soft drink firms agreed not to advertise drinks high in sugar to under-16s."
Storing up problems for later
Sports drinks are not alone in posing sugar-related risks. Added sugar in other foods and drinks, such as chocolate, cakes, sweets and fizzy drinks, can compound the problem. What's more, sugars and acids found naturally in syrups, honey and unsweetened fruit juices can cause tooth decay and erosion.
If you're exercising intensively and regularly, drinking an occasional sports drink before or afterwards might not do you much harm. However, if exercise is often off your agenda, drinking liquids high in sugar could be storing up problems for later. In fact, the healthiest drink for hydrating yourself before and after exercise is water.²
The diabetic danger
Diabetics can face serious risks from sports drinks. The products have a high glycaemic index. So diabetics – particularly those with type 2 diabetes – should check the calorie and carbohydrate content, and change their insulin and nutrition intake to match.
Find out more about our diabetes treatments. To gain valuable advice on your food and drink intake, arrange a dietary consultation today.
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