Sports and Energy Drinks and Diabetes

The advertising behind sports drinks is slightly different than for soft drinks. Sports drinks actually do provide benefits in carbohydrate replacement and in electrolyte replacement. But the need to quickly replace carbohydrates and electrolytes comes as a result of intense exercise. If you’re not a marathoner, or participating in some other high intensity exercise for an hour or longer, chances are that you don’t need a sports drink.

Sports drinks contain varying amounts of carbohydrate from sugar, and the electrolytes potassium and sodium. If you’re eating a balanced diet, you’re already getting enough carbohydrates and potassium — and sodium, almost certainly more than you need. Sports drinks have a high glycemic index value, to rapidly raise blood glucose and make that energy available. Again, this is essentially the opposite of what you want from your carbohydrates.

Sports drinks may have some use among athletes with type 1 diabetes in combating hypoglycemia during and after intense workouts, but that’s a specific use that is uncommon to the great majority of people with diabetes. Unless you can realistically see yourself in head-to-head competition with the athletes starring in sports drink commercials, sports drinks aren’t really for you.

Today’s advertising for energy drinks definitely targets youth, and annual sales in the United States exceeded $10 billion in 2012. Adults with diabetes may be tempted to try these products because their energy levels can be chronically low as a consequence of diabetes. So, energy drinks deserve a closer look.

The secret to the energy in energy drinks is caffeine — lots of caffeine. Many energy drinks also contain carbohydrate in the form of sugar, although most offer sugar-free versions, too. The list of special ingredients can feature a range of B vitamins, ginseng, taurine, guarana, and glucuronolactone.

A review of research on energy drinks published in the New York Times in January, 2013, found that there isn’t much research to review. The consensus among experts, however, is that energy drinks have no effect other than the effect of caffeine and sugar. The additional, often featured, ingredients are lacking sound evidence for any benefit whatsoever.

Energy drinks vary in caffeine concentration, from an amount about equal to brewed coffee at 10 milligrams caffeine per fluid ounce to as much as ten times that concentration according to Consumer Reports’ testing of one brand. The dose of caffeine depends both on the concentration and the size of the drink.

Ultimately the question becomes one of purpose and cost. It’s fair to say that people with diabetes don’t need additional carbohydrate, and many of these drinks also include unwanted sodium. Some research suggests that caffeine has a negative effect on blood glucose and insulin balance in people with type 2 diabetes that is not well controlled. And, whereas caffeine does raise blood pressure, the effect seems to be temporary.

Nevertheless, consuming caffeine when you already have high blood pressure should be discussed with your physician, and caffeine in the amounts contained in many energy drinks is unnecessary. Lastly, the cost of energy drinks, at $2.50 to $3.50 per container, is an expensive way to get caffeine, which inevitably also comes with ingredients you don’t need.

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