Contributor: Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD
By now, most exercise enthusiasts likely have heard of and perhaps tried coconut water. Before you spend a few dollars on a one-serving bottle, consider whether it is truly worthwhile.
Coconut water is the sweet, milky liquid that comes from the center of a coconut. You can buy it at the grocery store or your local gym and in convenience stores. Advertised as a natural sports drink, coconut water started becoming popular in the United States in 2008, and sales continue to rise.
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Sports drinks are intended to provide energy and replace electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, lost through sweat during prolonged exercise.
If you’re exercising less than 60 minutes, good old tap water is sufficient to rehydrate you. But for those exercising for more than an hour, a sports drink is warranted and supported by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which recommends 30 grams to 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour.
The exception is high-intensity exercise in extreme heat, which causes excessive perspiration. In that case, a sports drink would be beneficial regardless of your workout’s length.
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While coconut water has a nutrient composition similar to traditional sports drinks, it does differ in significant ways. Unsweetened or original flavors contain fewer carbohydrates and less sodium, which are the key nutrients required for long workouts.
Sodium is the main electrolyte lost through sweat, and carbohydrates are necessary for fuel during extended exercise to replenish your energy levels both during and post-workout. Flavored coconut waters are actually similar in nutrient composition to sports drinks, again, except for less sodium.
Depending on the brand, flavored coconut waters are sweetened with fruit juice, fruit puree sugar or stevia. Coconut water is packed with potassium and also contains beneficial nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, which sports drinks lack.
Other advantages of coconut water include its all-natural forms of sugar and the fact that the drink typically is free of dyes.
It’s important to remember that sports drinks have been extensively researched, and their unique blend of sugar has been formulated to ensure optimal absorption and energy during exercise.
If you are looking for an all-natural, flavorful alternative to traditional water, coconut water is worth a try. But be aware of coconut water’s extra calories compared with that of calorie-free tap water, and choose the unsweetened version when possible. For athletes who need hydration during or after a long workout, a traditional sports drink is the best choice to ensure proper hydration for maximum performance and recovery.
Guide to sports health