Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
Sports drinks are a thriving industry. The 2010s seemed to be dominated by masses of people kicking up their activity level, whether that meant participating in marathons, playing sports, spending more time in the gym, or following exercise videos in their homes. To take advantage of this uptake in physical activity and the expanding awareness of greater health, sports drink makers have advertised more and more. You may have been enticed by an image of an Olympic-level athlete, bright with sweat from having just competed, lifting up that bottle and touting the benefits of an electrolyte-filled sports drink. Even as a child, whenever you had a fever your parents may have run to the store to get an electrolyte-filled medicinal drink and encouraged you to drink it so you wouldn’t dehydrate. Hydration itself has even turned into a trend, with people posting on social media about their hydration goals and whether they met them or not.
So what’s the big deal? If I’m thirsty, won’t soda or coffee do just as good a job?
First of all, no. While water isn’t the only source of hydration, it is the single most important one. Every single piece of your body needs water to function. And more specifically, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “your body uses water to maintain its temperature, remove waste, and lubricate your joints.”
You can see why not getting enough water can cause some major problems.
In addition to hydrating through water, it is also important to make sure your electrolyte levels are high enough. Electrolytes are important minerals like sodium, calcium, and potassium that are necessary for many of your body’s functions.
While recent research has disproven the fear that reasonable amounts of coffee and soda will deplete your body of electrolytes, they certainly don’t help the balance. And, in fact, coffee (and tea) are well-known diuretics, and instances of diarrhea definitely deplete your body of the electrolytes it needs.
In addition to losing your electrolytes via intense workouts, climate also plays a factor in electrolyte retention. If you live in a humid climate, you are more likely to lose them just by walking around outside.
So if you want to stay hydrated, aside from drinking water, what is there to do?
If you regularly engage in intense activities like running or working out at the gym, a sports drink once in a while isn’t a bad way to keep your levels in check. On the other hand, if you don’t consistently work out, sports drinks may not be for you. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a typical electrolyte drink contains about 14 grams of sugar in every 8 ounces. So even though the rest of the ratio (100 milligrams of sodium, 30 milligrams of potassium) is decent for someone who’s been sick or working out, you may want to either find a lower sugar version or another way to hydrate.
Then again, drinking isn’t the only way to quench your thirst. Did you know that there are several foods that can help you get hydrated? While iceberg lettuce tends to get a bad rap nutritionally for being mostly water, when it comes to a hot and humid day, a high water content is exactly what you want. A basic, crisp iceberg lettuce salad with crunchy celery and cucumbers can be one of the most hydrating things beyond water, since all three vegetables contain upwards of 95 percent water.
Thinking of a side for dinner? A crudite platter that contains zucchini and cauliflower is also helpful when eating your way to hydration.Or are you in a snacking mood? A mixed fruit salad containing watermelon and strawberries will help you hydrate, with each of those fruits being 91 percent water.
Long story short–hydration is key, and smart hydration is essential to the appropriate functioning of your body.