Gatorade: Is It Worth the Hype?

Gatorade is marketed as an effective sports drink that replenishes and hydrates the body. However, it is not actually the best option for most athletes.

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Athletes looking to refuel after a grueling workout session have likely grabbed the signature lightning-bolt-emblazoned bottle of Gatorade off the shelf at some point in their lives. The reputation of this brightly colored sports drink is well known. Supposedly, it provides the electrolytes and replenishment needed to keep athletes energized. Does the popular sports drink live up to expectations, or is it just another sugary beverage labeled as a beneficial source of energy?

Gatorade was developed in the 1960s by the Florida Gators, the University of Florida’s football team, to tackle dehydration and electrolyte loss. Marketed as a quick refuel for intense exercise, it boasts a blend of carbohydrates and electrolytes, which are described as vital for fueling working muscles and replacing the nutrients lost through sweat.

Gatorade consists of a host of ingredients, including water, sugar, and chemicals like sodium benzoate, monopotassium phosphate, and potassium sorbate, which are used as preservatives and buffers. Gatorade also contains many electrolytes, which are minerals that maintain the body’s ionic balance. These include calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate, and more. The main purpose of Gatorade is to fuel and replenish the electrolytes lost during exercise.

Electrolytes play a pivotal role in the human body. They are present in nearly every fluid and cell in the body, allowing muscles to contract and keeping the body in balance. Sodium, the most abundant electrolyte, is critical for maintaining fluid balance and absorbing nutrients. Sodium also helps maintain a high blood volume, which translates into greater blood flow to the muscles and sustained performance. Even if an athlete stays hydrated and drinks enough water, health conditions such as pulmonary edema and seizures can still develop. This is because while lost water may be replaced, nutrients lost in sweat—such as sodium—aren’t. Hyponatremia, a condition caused by insufficient levels of sodium in the blood, leads to the body retaining too much water, causing cells to swell and resulting in numerous health problems that range from mild to life-threatening. In such instances, drinking just water isn’t sufficient, and sports drinks like Gatorade are needed to replenish lost sodium. 

In 2018, four students from the University of Delaware conducted an investigation on the efficacy of Gatorade. They tested dehydration levels, loss in body mass, and average duration of maximum exertion in two groups of distance kayakers, one of which was given water and the other Gatorade. After one hour of kayaking, they found that the kayakers who drank Gatorade were more hydrated and could maintain their maximum exertion for longer periods of time.

While the drink may be effective for intense periods of exercise, drinking Gatorade is not necessary for most athletes. Gatorade contains 34 grams of sugar per 20 fluid ounces, nearly the equivalent of the recommended daily serving size of 36 grams. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) like Gatorade contribute to the obesity epidemic, especially when it comes to childhood obesity. Currently, SSBs contribute to 10-15 percent of a child’s caloric intake and are the primary source of added sugars in the American diet. The majority of the studies conducted have shown a direct correlation between SSB consumption and weight gain, as well as adolescent obesity. Excessive consumption of high-sugar beverages increases caloric intake without adding significant nutritional value. Not only does Gatorade contain high amounts of sugar, but it may also fail to supply enough electrolytes to the body.

Drinking sports drinks is not the only way to replenish electrolytes. There are much healthier alternatives to receiving the necessary nutrients. Getting electrolytes from natural foods is the best way to replenish after an intense workout or draining game. Bananas and sweet potatoes, for instance, are great sources of potassium, which is critical for heart function. Potassium is used by the body in tandem with sodium; as sodium enters a cell, potassium leaves, and vice versa. Low levels of potassium can affect muscle and nerve function. Magnesium-rich foods, including nuts and leafy greens like kale and spinach, offer a natural means to support brain and muscle functions by aiding cells in turning nutrients into energy. Calcium, found in abundance in dairy products, does more than just build strong bones and teeth. It’s also essential for muscle movement, nerve signals, and heart rhythm. Irregular calcium levels can cause a plethora of symptoms across the body, ranging from confusion and muscle spasms to joint pain, arrhythmia, and kidney failure. 

In reality, Gatorade is just sugar water with some electrolytes. For those engaged in moderate to strenuous exercise for less than an hour, water should be enough to stay hydrated. Despite the presence of electrolytes, the high sugar outweighs the benefits, creating a drink only suitable for specific circumstances—most of which normal athletes will never find themselves in. Athletes doing strenuous training or competing for longer than an hour may find benefits in Gatorade that are not found in water and can burn off the extra sugar. Only by understanding when to drink Gatorade can its benefits be reaped to the fullest.