How and Why To Make A Sugar-Free Electrolyte Drink

Swap your store-bought sports drink for a healthier homemade version

Side profile of a woman drinking water from a bottle
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It's easy to succumb to 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, there is a lot of evidence that electrolytes are indeed very effective in regulating your body's fluid balance, especially during and after exercise, illness, and if you're a strict low-carb dieter.

If you're a low-carb dieter who exercises, or if you're on a low-carb diet and get sick, you doubly need these added electrolytes. 

Why A Low-Carb Diet Increases Your Need for Electrolytes

On a low-carb diet, your body begins to use fat rather than glucose for fuel, and in doing so, it retains less water. As you excrete more water, important minerals—the electrolytes as calcium, sodium, magnesium, chloride, and potassium, specifically—are also excreted from your system. So it's key to replenish them in order to avoid negative symptoms such as lightheadedness and dehydration—especially if you're also exercising or ill. 

However, if you've ever walked down the sports drinks aisle at the drugstore, you know there's a lot of sugar and other junk added to these items. There is a scientific reason behind why many of these drinks contain sugar; a quick shot of sugar provides helpful glucose for replenishing energy stores.

Sugar is for taste, but also for fuel. People whose bodies are used to using carbohydrate for energy often find it is helpful to have extra sugar during heavy exercise. But low-carb dieters generally need to avoid this added sugar. 

Here's what goes into most sports drinks, and how to adapt these ingredients for a low-carb diet.

 

Water

Of course, a major ingredient in sports drinks is water; after all, their goal is to hydrate you. It is also 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 drink too much sugar at once, it slows down your absorption of water, and again, the goal of these beverages is to hydrate you. But even though a bottle of Gatorade contains less sugar than a can of Coke, it doesn't mean you should be drinking it. 

The issue of nutritional needs during exercise for people who are restricting carbohydrates has not been extensively studied. We do know 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 (this is called keto-adaptation). 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 do 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 carbohydrate and see how you feel. However, there's no reason to have to drink a sugary drink. Try eating several pieces of fruit after your workout, or add 1/2 cup of 100% juice (no added sugars of any kind) to your water. 

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.  

Under ordinary conditions, the loss of minerals is not a problem. Eating a balanced diet will supply your body with plenty of minerals for your electrolyte needs if you're getting a moderate amount of exercise. But as mentioned above, those who exercise strenuously for long periods, low-carb dieters, or those with illness may need extra salt and potassium. Sports drinks contain small amounts of sodium and potassium. 

It turns out that two tablespoons of lemon juice contain almost exactly the amount of potassium in 8. oz of a typical sports drink (check out this list for other high potassium foods). And a pinch of salt supplies 110mg of sodium, the same amount in 8 oz. of a sports drink. So, if you want to make your own low-carb sports drink, it's quite easy!

Sugar-Free Sports Drink Recipe 

Just mix together:

  • 1 cup (8 oz) water (not carbonated)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 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!)
  • Flavoring and sweetener to taste. You might try Crystal Light Drink Mix, unsweetened Kool Aid (with sugar substitute to taste), or  sugar-free flavored syrups such as Da Vinci or Torino

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