Water and sports drinks
When it comes to staying hydrated, what works best for you depends on a number of factors, including your personal health history, your activity level and your location (hello, humidity!).
That said, you can rarely go wrong with straight water. In some circumstances, though, sports drinks may actually be better for hydration. Find out when to opt for extra electrolytes and when to hit the tap—but also know that your own physician knows best, so always check with them before making any big dietary changes.
Which Is Better for Hydration: Sports Drinks or Water?
For most people, good old H2O is going to be your best bet.
"Most casual exercisers don't need a sports drink. Plain water is just fine," Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD, tells Parade. "A few times when they might be helpful include during long, intense physical activities (more than 60 minutes), in hot climates or for athletes who do high-intensity workouts."
If you're just working out to get or stay in shape, as opposed to, say, training for a marathon or the Olympics, water will serve you well.
When Are Sports Drinks Appropriate for Hydration?
"Sports drinks are designed to replenish fluids, electrolytes and carbohydrates, and they can be beneficial in specific situations—but I don’t recommend them for everyday hydration needs," Brittany Werner, RD, registered dietitian and director of coaching at Working Against Gravity, says. "During extended workouts or endurance events, the body may lose significant amounts of electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium) and carbohydrates through sweat. This is a perfect time to add a sports drink to help replenish those losses and provide a quick source of energy. Hot and humid environments can increase sweat rates and electrolyte losses. In these conditions, sports drinks may help replace electrolytes more effectively than water alone and help prevent dehydration."
There are some other circumstances in which sports drinks may be beneficial.
If you sweat a lot, especially if you tend to get salt sweat stains, you may lose more electrolytes in your sweat than the average person, which you'll want to replenish, Alex Larson, RDN, says.
"Sports drinks typically will have both a carbohydrate source and some type of sugar included in that. They also will have electrolytes, especially sodium, which is the big one that's lost through our sweat," she explains. "Both of those things added to water will help improve the rehydration so our body actually absorbs the fluids and retains those fluids a lot more easily. If we drink plain water, that typically just triggers urine output."
Larson also says that if you're exercising at a higher altitude, like somewhere up in the mountains, you're likely to lose fluids a lot faster because the air tends to be drier. In those cases, she notes, "You're going to need higher carb intake, so that would be another situation where you'd want to switch to a sports drink."
What Is In Sports Drinks?
Sports drinks can vary when it comes to ingredients, but Werner says most will have some combination of the following:
Carbohydrates: Sports drinks contain carbohydrates in the form of sugars, typically glucose, sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. Carbohydrates provide a quick source of energy during physical activity.
Sodium: Helps maintain fluid balance, stimulates thirst and aids in rehydration.
Potassium: Important for muscle function and helps balance sodium levels.
Chloride: Works with sodium and potassium to maintain electrolyte balance.
Flavorings: Natural or artificial flavorings are used to enhance the taste of the sports drink.
Many will contain artificial colorings, as well as preservatives—like sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate—to prolong their shelf life, and gum arabic or glycerol ester of rosin may be added to stabilize the beverage and prevent the separation of ingredients, Werner says.
It's important to look at the ingredients list for sports drinks because some may not have what you need—and some may have extra additives beyond electrolytes and carbohydrates (like caffeine) that aren't exactly harmful, but also aren't hydrating.
"There are many beverages branded as sports drinks that do not contain real sugar and do not have sodium, the primary electrolyte lost in sweat," Keri Yee, MS, RD, senior weight management dietetic specialist in the Center for Weight Loss & Bariatric Surgery at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, tells us. "These are not true sports drinks."
Is Gatorade Better Than Water?
No, Gatorade is not better than water. But there are exceptions to this rule.
"If you find yourself drinking sports drinks all day long instead of plain water, the calories can add up pretty quickly," Larson explains. "If you don't need all those carbs, this could potentially contribute to some unwanted weight gain. But if you're using sports drinks strategically—like if you're an athlete—they're a really great tool to use."
"Gatorade doesn't offer an advantage over water for staying hydrated since it contains added sugars and calories, while plain water is excellent for everyday hydration without any extra ingredients," Michelle Routhenstein, RD, a registered dietitian at Entirely Nourished, adds.
That said, there's another circumstance in which Gatorade or sports drinks can help: If you've been sick, which often can make you dehydrated, Victoria Whittington, RDN, says drinking sports drinks can be a good idea. This is especially true if you've had a stomach bug (think vomiting and/or diarrhea) or if you've had a fever that's made you sweaty.
When Are Sports Drinks Not Recommended?
According to Routhenstein, sports drinks aren't for everyday hydration, especially for people with a focus on weight management or who have heart disease, diabetes or other metabolic disorders.
"Sports drinks have added sugars and calories, which can potentially negatively impact heart health when consumed regularly," she explains. "High sugar intake is linked to an increased risk of conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure—all of which can contribute to heart disease."
Werner says that the sugar rush—and subsequent crash—from many sports drinks can be pretty unpleasant too.
"The rapid influx of carbohydrates from the sugars in sports drinks can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then crash. This can lead to feelings of fatigue, irritability, increased food cravings and increased hunger," Werner notes. "The high sugar concentration of sports drinks can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, including bloating, cramping and diarrhea, especially when consumed in large quantities."
And that diarrhea can, in turn, dehydrate you, rendering your sports drink moot.