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Whether you’ve just finished a strenuous hike or have been working in the heat all day, you’re probably reaching for a sports drink to rehydrate. But when you’re stocking up in the grocery store, the sheer amount of sports drinks can easily overwhelm. Bottles are now joined by powders and tablets, while the variety of drinks is more extensive than ever.
Sports drinks have gotten complicated, but there are two more prominent varieties: electrolyte sports drinks and sugar-free sports drinks. Here’s what electrolyte sports drinks and sugar-free sports drinks are made of, their differences, and which is best in a given situation.
What’s the Difference Between Zero-sugar Sports Drinks and Electrolyte Sports Drinks?
“When strictly comparing a sugar free sport drink vs. a regular sports drink vs. a regular sports drink, you may just notice a difference in overall calories, carbohydrates, and sugar amounts,” says Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, Board Certified Sports Dietitian.
Electrolyte sports drinks contain electrolytes as well as simple carbohydrates that provide energy to the user. They’re also high in sugar and calories.
“Because electrolyte sports drinks contain sugar, these options are much higher in carbohydrates and calories than the zero sugar sports drinks, though intended for athletes in high-level sports that require the additional carbohydrates to fuel their exercise.”
Sugar-free sports drinks are made with artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, and are generally lower in calories and carbohydrates than regular sports drinks. However, this doesn’t mean they’re completely void of electrolytes. “Zero-sugar sports drinks are often intended for individuals who need added sodium, such as in humid weather where sweating is increased, but may not need additional calories,” says Mary Wirtz, BCDC. These drinks also have added potassium.
When to Choose Electrolyte Sports Drinks
Reach for electrolyte sports drinks in situations where you need to replenish nutrients — after intense exercise is the most common circumstance.
“I would never want a marathon runner to choose a sugar-free sports drink when they are in the middle of a marathon because they need those simple carbohydrates contained in the regular sport drink to give them energy and fuel for their race,” Ehsani says.
However, strenuous exercise isn’t the only way your body loses electrolytes. If you’re sick and throwing up a lot, for example, it’s best to rehydrate with a drink that will replenish what you’ve lost. The same goes for illnesses that cause dehydration. In addition to rehydrating, electrolyte drinks will also help restore any depleted fluids.
When to Choose Zero-Sugar Sports Drinks
If you simply need to quench your thirst or cool down, a sugar-free sports drink may be the better option.
“Overall, for the average person drinking the zero-sugar sports drink will be healthier than the electrolyte sports drink,” says Josh Schlottman, CSCS. “The sugar can contribute to tooth decay, weight gain, and insulin resistance. Children especially would be better off drinking the zero-calorie sports drink than one containing sugars.”
Athletes don’t always need to rely on electrolyte sports drinks either.
“If an athlete is in their off season and just doing very light workouts a few times a week, they likely don’t need additional calories, especially let’s say if they are looking to lose weight, and can use a zero sugar option, which will give them the electrolyte they need to replace from sweating,” Ehsani says.
Are the Artificial Sugars in Sugar-Free Sports Drinks Harmful?
Artificial sugars aren’t harmful as long as they aren’t consumed in large doses, Schottman says. Sugar-free sports drinks that contain sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, diarrhea, nausea, and an upset stomach.
What’s the Best Way to Recover After Exercising?
Sports drinks are an easy solution to post-workout energy and fluid loss, but even they aren’t the most optimal option. First, rehydrate with water. Ehsani recommends eating something with a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein within 60 minutes of finishing your workout. A smoothie made with a variety of fruits and soy milk, a greek yogurt parfait topped with fruit and granola, or pretzels and peanut butter are all good examples. To replace lost electrolytes, eat foods rich in sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, which are all lost through sweat, she adds.