Make Your Own Sugar-Free Electrolyte Drink

Side profile of a woman drinking blue 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 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 or illness, and if you're on a strict low-carb eating plan. If you follow a low-carb diet and exercise, or if you're on a low-carb diet and get sick, you doubly need these added electrolytes.

Why More Electrolytes Are Needed

On a low-carb diet, insulin levels fall, and with that, the kidneys retains less sodium. As you excrete water, important minerals—the electrolytes 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.

Two tablespoons of lemon juice contain almost exactly the amount of potassium in 8 ounces of a typical sports drink. A pinch of salt supplies 110 milligrams of sodium, the same amount in 8 ounces of a sports drink. So, if you want to make your own low-carb sports drink, it's easy.

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.

Most people benefit from having small amounts of carbohydrate during heavy exercise. However, if you prefer to avoid sugar, you might want a sugar-free beverage to replace fluids and electrolytes.

Sugar-Free Sports Drink Recipe

Mix together:

  • 1 cup (8 ounces) water, not carbonated
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Small pinch of salt (a teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 milligrams of sodium, so you need 1/20th of a teaspoon of salt—not much)
  • Flavoring and sweetener to taste (optional). Try Crystal Light Drink Mix, unsweetened Kool Aid, or sugar-free flavored syrups. If you avoid artificial sweeteners, try stevia.

Sports Drink Ingredients

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, the goal is to hydrate you.

Sugar

Sports drinks have quite a lot of sugar, but interestingly they have only about half the sugar of most other commercial beverages. One 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade has about 34 grams of sugar, while a 20-ounce soda has about 69 grams of sugar.

Sports drinks have less sugar to prevent athletes from gastrointestinal cramping during exercise. But although Gatorade contains less sugar than soda, depending on your goals, it may not be the best choice for you.

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 two to three 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. However, cutting carbohydrates too drastically and quickly can lead to uncomfortable symptoms (the "keto flu").

Depending on the type of exercise you do, a lower-carbohydrate diet may or may not be beneficial.

In most cases, it is unlikely that you would need extra carbohydrate during a moderate exercise session. However, for longer, more vigorous workouts (such as a run that lasts more than an hour), you may need to replace carbohydrates during training.

In addition, what you eat before and after you exercise can also affect your performance. If you are looking to achieve specific fitness goals, working with a registered dietitian would be helpful.

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.

As mentioned above, those who exercise strenuously for long periods, people who follow a low-carb diet, or those with illness may need extra salt and potassium. Sports drinks contain small amounts of sodium and potassium.

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.

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