The truth about energy drinks

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The energy drinks market is big business - well over £1 billion a year. Is it worth it?

In the past six years, sales of energy drinks and sports drinks almost doubled.

In 2010, Britain guzzled 600 million litres of them . Gone are the days when the only sports drink option was fizzy Lucozade or diluted juice. Now the supermarket shelves are bursting at the seams with drinks that claim to enhance your performance, and you can’t even go to the petrol station without being offered an energy boost at the counter.

What’s the difference between a sports drink and an energy drink?

Sports drinks are designed for use during strenuous exercise, when the body’s carbohydrate stores start to run low. They provide easily absorbed carbohydrate, in the form of sugars, along with fluid and electrolytes to replace sweat losses. Energy drinks, on the other hand, usually contain too much sugar to rehydrate effectively. They can also contain as much caffeine as a double espresso.

The truth about energy drinks

Drinks manufacturers have capitalised on people’s busy, stressful lives by introducing products that claim to give us a boost. The energy drinks market is big business – in 2010 it was worth £1.26 billion.  The latest Powerade advertising shows ordinary people rushing around the ‘everyday race’ – using an energy drink to help them get through a busy day. The trouble is, the energy in these drinks is provided by rapidly absorbed carbohydrate in the form of sugar, along with stimulants such as caffeine.  While this provides a short-term rise in blood sugar, it’s likely to be followed by a dip in energy after that sugar is either used up or stored.  If you need an energy boost you’re much better off getting this from real food, which is digested more slowly and provides sustained energy release. 

The truth about sports drinks

Sports drinks are specifically designed for athletes and active people who frequently train at high intensity for more than an hour. They are proven to improve performance and do have their place, but it’s important to know that, in the same way as energy drinks, the ‘energy’ they give you is simply extra calories from sugar. There are some sports drinks that don’t contain sugars and are designed solely for rehydration – in most circumstances, water will do this job just as effectively.

 

If you are trying to lose weight, it’s easy to undo your hard work at the gym by mistakenly thinking an energy drink or sports drink will help you.

Say you go to the gym and do 20 minutes on the cross-trainer plus some light weights. This 35 minutes total work will probably burn around 225 calories.  Exactly the same as a 500ml bottle of Powerade Energy contains. Drinking it might perk you up, but it has replaced all the calories you just burnt off.  Some other examples, based on an 11 stone adult:

Drink
Time to burn off

Red bull energy (250ml)

Relentless (500ml)

Lucozade Sport (500ml)

Powerade ION4 (500ml)

21 minutes of dancing

33 minutes of skiing

30 minutes of cycling (leisurely pace)

10 minutes of jogging

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When and how to use sports drinks

While energy drinks have no clear benefits, sports drinks can be useful if you often exercise for over an hour. For example, if you’re training for a half marathon, you will need to go out running for more than an hour at a time.  And there’s nothing magical about sports drinks – you can make your own by mixing 250ml of water with 250ml of fruit juice and adding a tiny pinch of salt. One or two of these per hour will give your muscles the carbohydrate they need to sustain your effort level and make recovery easier. If you choose to buy a sports drink, look for ‘isotonic’ on the label, or pick one that contains about 6g of carbohydrate per 100ml.

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