Is Gatorade just, as the British press put it, lolly water?
Every 8-year old with a soccer ball knows that you have to stay hydrated.
They hear it from parents and gym teachers, coaches and pediatricians. They’re taught to start drinking in advance of exercise and to continue to drink at regular intervals to replace the fluids they sweat out.
This drinking dogma is not common sense.
Until the 1970’s everyone—even elite athletes—was taught to let thirst be their guide. Our bodies come equipped with an efficient homeostatic mechanism that regulates and balances hydration all on its own and uses thirst as a signal to drink.
The new-fangled concept of scientific hydration– it’s something we were taught by the sports drink industry.
Have we been sold a bill of goods?
The BBC just aired a new investigative documentary contending that the sports drink industry essentially invented the entire field of the science of dehydration. Through scientific sponsorships and grants, the industry has influenced four decades of academia, medicine, athletics, and even public health policy all in the interest of marketing a product based on a dubious health claim.
Early on, the sports drink industry set up its own research arms like Scientists in Sport and the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. The industry funds groups like the 35,000 member US National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the 45,000 member American College of Sports Medicine, and underwrites countless professional and consumer publications by and for its members. Even the nutrition guidelines for the Olympics were written in conjunction with Powerade, while Gatorade advocates had financial ties and prominent editorial roles in the drafting of guidelines for the U.S. military, which just so happens to be Gatorade’s number one customer.
The BBC production suggests that hydration science is a bunch of hooey, and the claim is backed by a scathing series of studies published this month in the British Medical Journal. The BMJ report pokes holes in decades of findings from beverage industry groups. It assessed decades-worth of hydration research supporting 431 product claims and advertisements; 97.3% were found to be invalid, tainted by flawed methodology and researcher bias.
A tiny benefit for a tiny minority
The BMJ reports that it’s only at the very extreme end of the sports spectrum where workouts are at their longest and most intense that performance may benefit from sports drinks. When the limits of endurance are stretched and performance is measured in millimeters and microseconds, the smallest incremental boost to energy and fluid replacement can make a difference.
For the rest of us, it’s about as effective as lolly water.