A Better Solution to Sugary, Electrolyte Drinks
Decades of research point to the damaging effects of sugary, electrolyte drinks. These sports drinks typically combine simple sugars and artificial flavors to create a hard-to-resist taste. A dose of artificial color gives them their unmistakable, day-glow look, and a sprinkle of electrolytes spruces up the label copy.
To be sure, formulators (and marketers) know how to make these potions so enticing that competitive athletes and weekend warriors alike eagerly buy them, often at a premium price.
Trouble is, research fails to confirm that sports drinks are any better for athletic performance than water. In fact, water has been shown to be just as effective for maintaining hydration, electrolyte balance and, most importantly, physical performance. What’s more, athletes drink larger amounts of sports drinks than water – and more often.1 This can lead to an often overlooked problem that every athlete wants to avoid: Tooth decay.
How sports drinks damage teeth
Sports drinks are acidic, very acidic, and that’s a real problem for dental health. For the most part, researchers point to a common ingredient, citric acid, that has strong decalcifying properties.
Essentially, sports drinks bath the teeth in a solution that is so acidic it can leech calcium (and phosphorous) from tooth enamel. This demineralization weakens teeth and increases the risk for cavities and other tooth decay, or worse tooth loss.
For decades, laboratory researchers have been taking teeth extracted during routine dental procedures and immersing them into various commercial sports drinks. The goal? To better understand the extent to which sports drinks erode dental enamel.
The results of all this research have been consistently bad. In a seminal study published in 1997, all the sports drinks tested – all eight – were found to be erosive.2 In a more recent study,3 when researchers tested three popular sports drinks, they found similar results. All of the sports drinks tested significantly eroded dental enamel by varying degrees.
The problem becomes worse when you consume sports drinks frequently as is the case for many athletes. (Any dental hygienist will tell you that the more you swirl an acidic fluid around your teeth, the more you can weaken the enamel.)
For athletes, several factors conspire to increase the odds of dental issues (and the costs to fix them).
First, intense or prolonged activity can leave you dehydrated as you sweat out fluid. When you’re dehydrated, your mouth is dry and the amount and flow of saliva is compromised. With less saliva, you reduce your ability to clear and neutralize the acid that can erode tooth enamel and damage teeth.
Athletes also tend to hold sports drinks in their mouths or swish it between teeth for several minutes before swallowing. This destructive habit baths teeth in acid for a prolonged period of time, further increasing the risk of eroding dental enamel.
Plus, exercise stresses the immune system, which can make it harder for an athlete to fight off mouth bacteria intent of damaging teeth.
A better solution
There’s a better way to maintain peak performance during competition without damaging your teeth with acidic sports drinks. The good news is it’s a simple 3-step plan that can easily fit into just about any training routine. Plus, it’s backed by sound science:
1. Drink water according to thirst. We talked about how you can spot the telltale signs of dehydration simply by paying attention to your body. You’ll also find an action plan you can put into practice today to help you stay properly hydrated with water.
2. Replenish electrolytes with a balanced electrolyte tablet. Along with fluid, you lose electrolytes in sweat and urine as a result of prolonged, intense activity. So you need a serious solution to help replenish them that won’t put you at risk for overhydration and expose you to the dangers of exercise-induced hyponatremia.
3. Replenish carbohydrates with food. You don’t need to rely on a sports drink to replenish carbs during exercise. Rather, you need only reach for foods with easily digestible carbs (aka simple sugars). Every athlete is different, but as a rule of thumb, sport nutritionists recommend athletes consume more carbs as the intensity and duration of their activity increases. Here are the general guidelines:4
- Exercise less than 30-45 minutes. No carbs are necessary (or practical).
- High-intensity exercise lasting 30-70 minutes. Small amounts of carbs may enhance performance.
- Endurance and intermittent, high-intensity exercise lasting 1-2 hours. Aim to consume about 30 grams of carbs per hour.
- Endurance exercise lasting 2-3 hours. Aim to consume about 60 grams of carbs per hour.
- Endurance and ultra-endurance exercise lasting 2.5 hours or more. Aim to consume up to 90 grams of carbs per hour.
Not sure what foods to reach for? Here are a few that provide about 30 grams of easily digested carbs per serving and are also easy to carry: a medium-size banana, 2 tablespoons of dried berries or raisins, a slice of bread with jam or honey, 20 pretzel bits, 3 boiled baby potatoes, or 4 regular rice cakes. Other good choices include bite-size granola mixes or sports bar (check product labels for grams of carbs per serving).
Now you’re ready to rethink sports drinks and replace them with a better solution that can not only fuels your greatness, but also protect your teeth. And, that’s worth smiling about.
1. Coombes JS. Sports drinks and dental erosion. Am J Dent. 2005;18(2):101-4. PMID: 15973827. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15973827.
2. Milosevic A. Sports drinks hazard to teeth. Br J Sports Med. 1997;31(1):28-30. PMID: 28028987. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9132205.
3. Ostrowska A, Szymański W, Kołodziejczyk Ł, Bołtacz-Rzepkowska E. Evaluation of the erosive potential of selected isotonic drinks: in vitro studies. Adv Clin Exp Med. 2016;25(6):1313-19. PMID: 28028987. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28028987.
4. Karpinski C, ed. Sports Nutrition Manual, A Handbook for Professionals. 6th ed. Chicago, IL; Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017.