Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Are Recovery Drinks the Nutritional Scam of the Century?

They get my vote!

It's been 4 decades since the first glass of Gatorade was quaffed. Since then? A $4 billion dollar industry's been born which in turn has perhaps provided more sugar and more misinformation than any other.

So does anyone actually "need" a "recovery" drink?

I know I don't, and I exercise quite a bit, but to be fair, I'm not an elite performance athlete, and in general I don't work out in beast mode.

Me? My workouts range from 30 minutes to an hour and I drink water if I'm thirsty or sweat a ton, and usually try to have a bit of protein when done.

Are you an elite performance athlete or work out in beast mode for hours at a time?  Really, unless you're competing (and even then, only if you're competing at high levels), or just absolutely killing yourself, recovery drinks just aren't necessary.

If I had to venture a guess, I'd bet that over 95% of all so-called recovery drinks were consumed by people who truly don't need them.  I'd also wager that a large percentage of those same folks only decided to exercise in order to lose or maintain weight, in which case that "recovery" drink's more likely to aid in the "recovery" of a few pounds, than of muscle or performance.

But the thing that really gets my knickers in a knot is that they're being aggressively marketed to children, virtually none of who are elite performance athletes, and all of who burn substantially fewer calories than full grown adults.

Take a gander at the photo down below. It's from a lengthy article that ran in the Montreal Gazette extolling the virtues of chocolate milk.  Do you think they're targeting you and me, or our children?  That's Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson, Chris Bosh, Apolo Ohno and Elana Meyers along with a giant cartoon bunny and they're promoting the Refuel Chocolate Milk campaign, where Refuel style bottles tend to be 500mL in size and on average contain 20% more calories and double the sugar of a Snickers bar.  How well do you think a campaign to get kids to down a Snickers bar post every workout would fare?  Probably not too well, which is a shame, because it might be a healthier choice than that god awful chocolate milk.

That photo at the top? Those kids lined up like an assembly line, probably at a school, as part of a Refuel with Chocolate Milk promotion, where their school's teaching them the "benefits" of liquid, double-sugar'ed, Snickers'.

(Both photos by Jemal Countess)

So basically what we have with the Refuel campaign are high octane liquid chocolate bars being peddled to children on the basis of something that virtually nobody needs - frickin' recovery drinks.

What a scam.

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  1. Totally agree. People are being made to think they need special food every time they do anything! I am only recreational I know but never eat anything before anything up to about a 12-15km run. I train before brekkie and then eat brekkie. I train (weights) after work and then eat dinner. What more do you need? Life doesn't have to be so complicated!

  2. I agree that a lot of people don't need them most of the time, but think more than just elite athletes or people in beast mode could gain a benefit. I use water for anything up to an hour. Over an hour and I'll usually take some gatorade or other sports drink along and find that it helps keep my energy levels up and the salt helps in the summer (I live in the US south, so it gets hot and you sweat a lot.) Over 2 hours and I'll usually take some other food (figs are great, but gels and bars are easy to pack). As for recovery foods, I think chocolate milk has a better carb to protein ratio than snickers, but rarely use either. A PB&J or banana and nuts seem to do just as well for me. YMMV.

  3. I have complained to the management of our community centres (Windsor ON) about this. They have prominently placed vending machines filled with "recovery drinks" and racks of power bars. Worst of all are the candy vending machines about two feet off the ground - clearly aimed at small kids, and every time I see them, there are also clusters of kids clamouring their moms for a quarter to buy candy.

    The response I got from the community centre management was that the drinks and bars were fulfilling a useful purpose for the people who use the gyms. It's clearly lost on them that the vast majority of people who use gyms want to keep their weight under control, and aiming sugar-filled products at them defeats the purpose.

    It also annoys me that the community centres don't fall under the same regulations as the schools, which have their food offerings curtailed by the Ministry of Education. While I don't think the new food law is perfect by any means, it's strange to me that the very same kids who are covered during school hours, are targeted after school at the community centres.

    1. Case in point: the Ontario Ministry of Education gives chocolate milk its stamp of approval in schools, even though its sugar content is as high as that of soda.

      I understand the rationale for offering flavoured milk to children who don't want white milk. However, I also run a milk program in the schools and I know that the vast majority of kids do drink regular milk when chocolate isn't an option.

      I also am aware that drinking huge quantities of dairy milk isn't the only way to grow healthy bones, but that's another topic altogether.

  4. Roman Korol8:25 am

    This is such an obvious rip-off, aimed at the most vulnerable and credulous! Thank you for this very timely article!

  5. Anonymous8:49 am

    I was watching another chocolate milk commercial last night - praising it's "recharge and refuel" properties & I thought "does anyone REALLY buy into this??? I go to the gym every day. I lift heavy weights & incorporate Tabatas into my Cardio workouts and never thought once about a recovery drink because they're pretty much all sugar! I'll have a high fiber protein bar instead (homemade). And I do consider myself an athlete. I guess the difference is I'm not being PAID to push this garbage onto little kids.

    1. I think that the Anon. poster above me has it spot on really. The vast majority of 'sports recovery drinks' are nothing but over marketed bottles of sugary water.
      If you want to recharge during/after a workout, skip the marketing machine and have water!
      The only effective 'recovery drink' that I know of is a well mixed protein shake after my workouts. Especially when they contain BCAAs, they CAN help your muscles to recover.

  6. The obsession with these drinks is ridiculous. The only time in my life I have ever consumed a sports drink is during labour (and even then, I had my hubby water it down by a lot). My husband will occasionally have one after hockey, and while I don't think it's necessary, he burns about 1000 calories in a game, so 150 calories of Gatorade isn't going to hurt anything. As for me...my workouts are only about 45 minutes max. I'm sure there's enough salt (probably too much) in my normal diet that I definitely do not need any of this overpriced kool-aid. I'd love to hear your take on protein shakes....seems to be the new health trend and to me, just seems another way to drink your calories and still end up overeating.

  7. Anonymous10:10 am

    Well....besides stating that that particular product in that particular campaign is a scam....this was a waste of my time to read. This paragraph ....."If I had to venture a guess, I'd bet that over 95% of all so-called recovery drinks were consumed by people who truly don't need them. I'd also wager that a large percentage of those same folks only decided to exercise in order to lose or maintain weight, in which case that "recovery" drink's more likely to aid in the "recovery" of a few pounds, than of muscle or performance. " .....

    is also a waste. You wager?? You ASSume???

    You start off shooting down Gatorade and state no facts about how bad it is. I drink the G2....20 calories. And I don't exercise to lose weight. I exercise to manage stress.

    Maybe you shouldn't ASSume.

  8. Anonymous10:19 am

    Sorry....maybe my comment was a little harsh. But, the article could have been written better. I agree that there are all kinds of garbage, bad-for-you drinks being marketed to kids. Just the title and the opening lines about Gatorade do not make the rest of the article match. And of course the assuming paragraph. I think this TOPIC is very important. I just think you could have done a much better job with the article.

  9. Anonymous10:43 am

    I would recommend you research the deaths from dehydration pre-electrolyte replacement drink (like Gatorade) vs. post, and then rewrite this article. This is one of the more uninformed articles I've read in a long time. If you are going to write about sports nutrition you should know something about sports nutrition.

    1. Clearly you're the one who doesn't keep up with the literature:


    2. Roman Korol6:58 am

      @Anonymous, I recommend you watch this video by Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, in order to understand the scam that Gatorade represents in its own right.


  10. It seems like factors that lead to folks falling over on the exercise course are mostly social - people are inattentive and careless about their requirements where pressure and competition are involved - and more or less everything about the issue of "recovery drinks" is part of a tight weave of factors:

    - The power and sophistication of marketing techniques
    - The lack of education about marketing messages
    - The lack of widespread, meaningful understanding of healthy food and activity patterns
    - The tendency for adults, in particular, to value exercise as a way to justify (over)eating

    As with most things, context is crucial. Involving kids in a demanding training program? Yeah, of course have fluid and salt available. You can still get vending machines out of the school hallways. But that's not really why those machines are there in the first place.

    Schools need to be honest and transparent about why those machines are there, but in an environment in which they are getting budgets cut from every direction, communities have to take some responsibility, too. These are really hard, complicated problems.

  11. One day about three years ago, a major energy drink company pulled up in a car (with their logo on the outside) on to my kid's high school property, close to the end of lunch. Out stepped about four girls dressed in bikinis and handed out energy drinks. By the time the administration of the school came out (which wasn't long) and told them to get off the property; the damage was done and a good chunk of the 1600 kids got a free energy drink. The energy drink company knew damn well what the school board policy was. This is not a small town, but a region of around a million people. My point is, that these energy drink companies are very very aggressive in getting their message out and they do not care about rules and regulations.

  12. There are definite guidelines for the use of sports supplements, as sports dietitians know, and they are useful products for athletes. The problem is that companies see an opportunity to expand their market in promoting consumption of these products to people who do not need them. Sports recovery drinks are not the scam of the century (they offer convenience to athletes, however, I often recommend consumption of regular old food), but their marketing to people who don't need them is. How many exercisers who are trying to lose weight and who buy an after workout smoothie from their gym actually lose weight? In my practice, not many and the first thing I do when these clients come to me for help is to discontinue that smoothie. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Interesting abstract about after exercise collapse being related to hypotension. We do know that electrolyte replacement is also important during exercise lasting 2 hours or longer or exercising in higher temperatures. Athletes who just drink water are at great risk for water intoxication if electrolytes are not replaced. This is different situation from the abstract that was posted.

  13. A nutritionist10:30 am

    There is a difference between the purpose and design of performance drinks and recovery drinks, which is lost on many commenters. For both performance and recovery, no special nutrition is needed for exercise of less than 1 hour in duration. Handing either out on the school yard is absolutely irresponsible.

    The purpose of recovery drinks/bars should be to quickly restore glycogen stores that have been depleted during endurance exercise. While this can be done with food, well designed recovery products can be a useful convenience. That said, recovery products are only needed if the person plans to repeat the endurance exercise the next day.

  14. Dietitan H4:32 pm

    Funny thing... I had finished reading this blog post just a fwe days before receiving a link for this online fitness, nutrition, lifestyle, weight loss magazine. And what article do you think I found inside? Sports Nutrition: Chocolate Milk, a Good-For-You Sports Drink!


    Perhaps they too should subscribe to your blog to get a different view....

  15. Anonymous11:07 am

    Dr Freedoff
    Do you have any comment on the video recommended by Roman Korol above of Dr Lustig at U of California, commenting on how fructose metabolizes and how the excess of fructose added to diet in recent years affects metabolic syndrome and obesity.
    Lustig says fructose is poison. (In fruit, not so bad; added in large quantities to processed food - lethal)
    The video has lots of biochemistry, it seems to give an explanation for a big part of the rise in the last few decades of the obesity problem.


    any comments?

  16. I would be interested as well. Lustig I think is the head of a Bariatric Unit for children in California. As such, I suspect you are familiar with him. There is a potential link here with cancer as well as obesity, and from my memory (Med School was 35 years ago)the biochemistry is persuasive. While the political discussions may be hyperbole, I point my students to this link for interesting discussions.

  17. I don't think there is any real debate about whether or not sports drink work- in fact, the science is pretty clear. The debate is about whether or not people who don't need them should consume them- and currently this seems way out of alignment. I, personally, would prefer to see the sodium content of sports drinks like Gatorade be brought up to a useful (for endurance performance) level, and a warning label about the risks of overconsumption be included.