Coconut Water, Homemade Sports Drinks and Other Thoughts on Hydration

As college students make their way to campus, college athletes are taking the field and hitting the gym for sports training and competition. Two questions that I’m being asked are, “is coconut water better than sports drinks?” and “should I make my own sports drink to cut down on sugar?”

First, coconut water…although being marketed as “super-hydrating,” it isn’t better than sports drinks and for some athletes sports drinks still have the greater advantage. Coconut water is the liquid inside green coconuts and it not the same thing as coconut milk (which is made from pressing coconut meat). In a few studies coconut water has been shown to be an effective rehydration beverage compared to water but isn’t superior to sports drinks.

Here are the pros and cons of coconut water:

Pros

  • Similar in calories to sports drinks (46 calories vs. 50 calories per cup)
  • Slightly lower in sugar than sports drinks (about 2 teaspoons vs. 3 teaspoons of sugar per cup)
  • Contains some protein (about 2 grams per cup)
  • High in potassium…about the same as found in a large banana

Cons

  • Lower in sodium than most sports drinks and sodium is needed by athletes who sweat heavily and are “salty” sweaters
  • Can have a mild laxative effect when large amounts are consumed
  • Expensive…$1.75 to $2.50 per serving
  • Not all brands passed the Consumer Labs test to make sure that what is in the bottle is the same as what is stated on the label

Don’t be fooled by the claims of high potassium in coconut water….although it is a good source of potassium, athletes lose about ten times more sodium in sweat than potassium, so athletes need the sodium found in sports drinks.

And, what about the homemade sports drinks? First, carbohydrate in sports drinks is a good thing…the 14 or so grams of carbohydrate per cup help to replace muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) and makes the drink palatable. I’ve never been a big fan of homemade sports drinks because of the quality control….when you buy a bottle of Gatorade or PowerAde you know what you are getting. When you make your own sports drink and the recipe calls for a “pinch” of salt, how much sodium are you really getting? And, research shows that a beverage that tastes good will lead to greater consumption…and I’ve yet to taste a “homemade” brew that tastes good. I encourage athletes to stick to the tried and true sports drinks when exercising at high intensity, for long duration, or during hot and humid practices (think football, soccer, tennis, or cross country practice in August).

Enjoy coconut water if you want a light tasting refreshing drink (and can afford it), but athletes will still get great benefits from drinking sports drinks.

The Athlete’s Plate

MyPlate has generated a lot of buzz and I’m using it to show athletes how to eat for performance and good health. The USDA website contains loads of good tips on good nutrition but I’ve pulled out the tips that apply to athletes by showing them how eating by the plate method can deliver performance fuel. www.choosemyplate.gov/index.html

In the fruit section of the plate, encourage potassium-rich fruits. I’ve found that many athletes don’t get adequate potassium but they get plenty of sodium. Athletes who sweat heavily and lose sodium need more salt than most adults, but not much emphasis is put on potassium-rich foods. So I encourage bananas, melons, and dried fruit in trail mix to boost potassium. I also suggest they use a fruit-flavored yogurt as a dip for strawberries, bananas, melon wedges and apples…the dairy provides another boost of potassium. And, with the hot weather and outdoor practices, I suggest eating frozen fruit bars for a refreshing treat.

In the vegetable section, I suggest baked sweet potatoes in place of baked potatoes for a sweet change. Emphasize color (although one athlete asked me if a green apple was healthier than a red apple, so the color rule doesn’t always work) like dark lettuce, spinach salad, broccoli, and tomatoes. Athletes like pasta so they are happy to know that the marinara sauce counts as a vegetable serving. Encourage a lot of veggie toppings for pizza…they all like pizza…but I ask them try mushrooms, green peppers, and onion toppings. Stir-fries are popular, as are veggie kabobs on the grill.

For grains, I encourage whole grains, but many athletes are confused about what is a whole grain. They still think that 100% wheat bread or mixed grains or 7-grain breads are whole grains. I suggest they try whole wheat pasta in macaroni and cheese, brown rice with a stir-fry, and snacking on whole grain crackers (like Triscuits) or whole grain breakfast cereals (Wheaties and Cheerios are popular). And, popcorn is a good study snack to increase whole grains. But, only half of grains need to be whole grains and refined grains contribute some iron to an athlete’s diet. Iron is nutrient that is often in short supply in the diets of female athletes.

Protein is usually an easy sell to athletes but I encourage lean protein, like 90% lean ground beef or ground turkey or chicken breast. Athletes are often surprised to know that some beans and peas are high in protein, as are nuts and seeds. Fish and shellfish are also popular protein choices…unfortunately, often fried fish or shrimp is consumed instead of grilled or blackened fish or steamed shrimp. I encourage athletes to eat fish when they eat out as many don’t know how to cook fish.

Dairy foods can be great recovery foods and many athletes know that low-fat chocolate or strawberry milk is a good post-workout food. Yogurt makes a good snack, fruit dip, smoothie base, and baked potato topping. I also encourage “skinny” lattes for the morning coffee run.
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Using the plate to educate is an easy and smart way to reach athletes. For another good resource, check out the PowerPoint on MyPlate at www.extension.unl/edu/fnh