When it comes to “health drinks”, it often seems difficult to get a straight answer on why and whether certain products are actually good for us. From sports drinks, to protein shakes, to good old fashioned juice, the supposed health benefits of certain drinks can often be misleading, and certain products might not be as good for us as you’d initially assume.
To help out, we’ve squeezed all the essential facts on some of the most popular “healthy” drinks into one easy to swallow post. So, are health drinks actually healthy?
Marketed as the ideal way to boost performance during exercise, isotonic drinks have been a regular fixture in shops and vending machines for a while now. But how true are these performance-boosting claims, and most importantly, are isotonic drinks good for you?
Well, it all comes down to context. Isotonic drinks are often marketed as “sports drinks”, and as the name suggests, are primarily formulated to help replace the fluid and energy lost during extended periods of exercise. They contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar to the human body, which means that the rehydration and re-energising process takes place faster than if the same quantity of water were consumed. As such, if you’re carrying out moderate to high intensity exercise for long periods – e.g. a couple of hours in the gym, or a long run – then isotonic drinks can help you to maintain a consistent level of performance, prevent muscle cramps, and help you stay energised.
However, the benefits of isotonic drinks are often misunderstood, and they’re often simply viewed as a healthy alternative to fizzy soft drinks, or as an energy drink. Whilst the sugar in isotonic drinks is beneficial to athletes and sportspeople who need the extra energy to stop fatigue, for most people it’s just empty calories. The reality is that these drinks are only “healthy” in the right context; if you’re not accompanying your isotonic drink with exercise, you’ll be consuming a lot of wasted calories in sugar, and receiving none of the benefits they can offer. Instead, try looking to energy rich foods to stop you feeling sluggish.
Protein drinks are another beverage becoming increasingly common in shops and homes around the country, and like isotonic drinks, have an often misunderstood purpose.
Because of the role that the protein plays in muscle function and growth, drinks containing high levels of the nutrient have become increasingly popular amongst the bodybuilding and weightlifting community. Like isotonic drinks, protein shakes, smoothies and powders can have a benefit to those who are carrying out high endurance exercise. When consumed about an hour before a workout, these drinks can aid in the delivery of amino acids to cells, helping muscles to recover and avoid strain.
When consumed occasionally, as part of a balanced diet, and as an exercise aid, protein drinks can be perfectly healthy. However, with the popularisation of the drinks, most of these factors are ignored. Many may view protein drinks as health drinks, without knowing why, how, and when to drink them. This isn’t just the case for the general public, but also amongst the weightlifting community too, where an attitude of “more protein means more muscles” often prevails. The truth is that alongside often having way above the daily reference intake of protein, these drinks can be high in substances like whey, which for some peoplewhen consumed in excess can trigger intolerance symptoms.
As they’re nutritionally imbalanced, potentially high in sugar, and often expensive, if you’re not working out there isn’t really any reason to have a protein shake. Even then, it’s far more beneficial to get the nutrient from high protein foods – try having lean red meat or chicken after a workout instead.
Juices and Smoothies
For years smoothies and juice have been seen as a quick fix health solution, and a way to cram the recommended daily intake of fruit and veg into one easy to swallow portion. However, the juice tide has turned in recent years, and the nutritional benefit of fruit juices and smoothies has undergone a massive reassessment. The problem is that whilst drinks like orange juice do contain valuable vitamins, the benefit of these is offset by their often large sugar content; volume for volume, some juices actually have the same amount (or more!) sugar than drinks as cola. Alongside high sugar content, fruit juice also contains no fibre, meaning that you’re consuming calories but won’t feel full.
This means that if you’re drinking your fruit rather than eating it, you could actually be doing your body more harm than good. As such, it’s better to view fruit juices and smoothies as a “treat” item, rather than a healthy product; we’d recommend not drinking shop bought versions more than once a week, and diluting them with water when you do.
In contrast, vegetable based smoothies and juices can have nutritional benefits, as they contain far less sugar than fruit drinks. Whilst it’s always better to eat your vegetables rather than drink them, if you’re someone who struggles to fit in the recommended daily intake, try making your own veg-based drinks at home, and stick to smoothies; these are better, as you’ll still get some of the fibre from the whole vegetables. You can throw in some fruit too, but try to make the majority of the drink vegetable based.
Essentially, it’s important to remember that no drink (no matter how green) is going to automatically bring good health. As always, the key is moderation, and ultimately, understanding how your dietary choices will affect you, and your lifestyle.
Think something in your smoothie might be causing unwanted side effects? Take a look at our Food&DrinkScan programme, and see if a food intolerance might be the trigger.