Prescription For Olympics: Grains Of Salt With The Sports Drink Ads

Please consider this my Olympics curtain-raiser (journalese for a story that previews a coming event): As you watch the games, which open next Friday, you’ll likely see a great many ads that use gorgeous gleaming musculature to promote sports-related products from “power drinks” to sneakers. So here’s an advance prescription for several grains of salt, to be taken daily.

BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, and the BBC report that there’s a “striking lack of evidence to back up claims for popular sports brands” — claims that drinks or sneakers can improve performance or enhance recovery.

They conclude that it is “virtually impossible for the public to make informed choices about the benefits and harms of advertised sports products.”

The BMJ carries a fascinating article on “The Truth About Sports Drinks” here. It’s the story of how a little recipe of water, sodium, sugar, and monopotassium phosphate with a dash of lemon flavoring, concocted in the sixties, has turned into a major industry — even though the science behind it is underwhelming.

Drink when you’re thirsty.

I contacted my favorite reality-checker on anything food-related, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and what senior nutritionist David Schardt told me about sports drinks made them lose their magic for me forever:

“These are really just like soft drinks. They’re basically empty calories, because most people exercising don’t need what’s in these drinks. Water is a perfectly good fluid for quenching your thirst. And some of the research on these products showing a benefit apply only to people undergoing extraordinary exertion, and not your normal soccer-playing child or jogging adult. So people should think of these as soft drinks, as soda. But they’ve gotten this reputation as being something special, so when school districts, for example, banish soda, they often make an exception for sports drinks, and that’s just not based on the facts.”

Ugh. Now what am I going to do with all that Gatorade powder I bought? At least, David Schardt said, it’s not that sports drinks are harmful; they’re just unnecessary calories.

The BMJ also offers a reality check on hydration — in short, drink when you’re thirsty — and a set of drinking recommendations — yes, indeed, drink when you’re thirsty.

From the press release:

The investigation also explores the role of sports drinks companies in the “science of hydration” and questions their links with some of the world’s most influential sports bodies in a bid to gain public trust in their products and persuade ordinary people they need more than water when they exercise. Continue reading