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How to Make a Sugar-Free Sports Drink

Sports Drinks Unraveled

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Updated April 23, 2014

They're everywhere it seems, and it's easy to succumb the marketing behind sports drinks - that if we exercise, we NEED sports drinks to replenish ourselves. It makes you wonder how athletes and exercisers got through a workout without them 20 or 30 years ago?

However, it's no surprise that there is a healthy dose of sugar in sports drinks. So what's a low carbing exerciser to do? First, let's look at what sports drinks contain, and how to approach getting our needs met in a lower carb (and much less expensive) way.

Water

Of course, the major component of sports drinks is water. It's important to keep hydrated during exercise. It is possible, however, to become TOO hydrated. The current recommendation is to let thirst be your guide rather than "pushing" fluids.

Sugar

Sports drinks have quite a lot of sugar, but interestingly they have only about half the sugar of most other commercial beverages. This is because if you load in too much sugar at once, it slows down water absorption. Sugar is for taste, but also for fuel. For people who's bodies are used to using carbohydrate for energy, it is helpful to have extra sugar during heavy exercise. But what about people on low-carb diets?

The issue of exercise with people who are restricting carbohydrates has not been extensively studied. Preliminary studies show that when people cut carbs, their bodies do change from using primarily carbohydrate for energy to using fat for energy, although it can take 2-3 weeks for the body to make this change. We know that native populations, such as the Inuit, who traditionally ate a very low-carbohydrate diet, were and are able to maintain vigorous endurance exercise for long periods without apparent ill effect. So it appears that over time, bodies adapt to using fat for energy during exercise.

For any one person, I think experimenting is in order. It's very unlikely that moderate exercise would make you need extra carbohydrate if you are used to eating a low-carb diet. For more vigorous workouts, try different amounts of carb and see how you feel. However, there's no reason to have to drink a sugary drink. Why not have a piece of fruit and get some nutrition with that sugar?

Electrolytes

Electrolytes are molecules of certain minerals that have an electrical charge. Our nervous system runs on the electricity generated by the manipulation of these molecules, called ions. This means that every function in the body that is dependent upon our nervous system (muscle movement, breathing, digestion, thinking, etc.) requires electrolytes, and the body places a priority on managing them. Electrolytes also are used to regulate the fluid balances in the body. Electrolytes include ions of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and chloride.

How do our bodies get electrolytes? We get these minerals through the food we eat, and lose them through excretion in various ways. Our sweat contains sodium, chloride, and potassium. These minerals are common in food. Sodium chloride is table salt, and both sodium and chloride are found in many, if not most, foods. Potassium is found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, legumes, and nuts.

How much sweating to we need to do before lost minerals need replacement? Under ordinary conditions, it's not a problem. Eating a balanced diet will supply the body with plenty of minerals for our electrolyte needs if we are getting a moderate amount of exercise. However, endurance athletes who exercise strenuously for long periods may need extra salt and potassium, as they can sweat quarts of water per day. Sports drinks contain small amounts of sodium and potassium.

Sodium - 8 oz of a typical sports drink contains 110 mg of sodium. This is the amount of sodium in a small pinch of salt. A teaspoon of salt contains 2300 mg of sodium, so basically you need 1/20th of a teaspoon of salt - not much! Half an ounce of salted peanuts (about 14 peanuts) has this much sodium, and also about 90 mg of potassium.

Potassium - 8 oz of a typical sports drink contains 30 mg of potassium. A cup of tea has 88 mg of potassium. A small peach has 150 mg. More high potassium low-carb foods

How to Make Low-Carb Sports Drink

It turns out that two tablespoons of lemon juice contain almost exactly the amount of potassium in 8 oz of a typical sports drink. So, if you want to make your own low-carb sports drink, it's quite easy. Just mix together:
  • 1 cup (8 oz) water (not carbonated)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • small pinch of salt
  • Flavoring and sweetener to taste
Flavoring Ideas:
  • Crystal Light Drink Mix
  • Unsweetened Kool Aid (with sugar substitute to taste)
  • Sugar-Free Flavored Syrups such as Da Vinci or Torino
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