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Coconut water only effective for moderate workouts, says study

Jordana Divon
Shine On
August 23, 2012

Natural food lovers rejoiced when coconut water began to fill mainstream grocery and convenience store shelves.

In Canada, it's a $2-million-a-year industry, with gyms, yoga studios, outdoor festivals and even Starbucks locations also jumping on the coconut water bandwagon.

The cloudy liquid has been touted as "nature's sports drink" and seems to provide a healthier alternative to chemical laden sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade.

But a new report presented at the American Chemical Society this week has thrown the potassium-packed drink's effectiveness into question when it comes to strenuous physical activity.

Also see: Raisins just as effective as sports chews for workouts

Researchers found that for high intensity workouts, where sweat flows like the Bellagio fountain, athletes may be better off reaching for a bottle of the fluorescent stuff.

"Coconut water's claim to fame is its high potassium content, a mineral many people don't get enough of because they don't eat enough fruits and vegetables," writes registered dietician Leslie Beck in the Globe and Mail.

"But during prolonged exercise, we lose much more sodium than potassium. The report concluded that coconut water alone can't replace the sodium lost during strenuous exercise."

To test the effectiveness of these drinks on the post-exercise body, scientists at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany analyzed coconut water, Gatorade and Powerade.

While coconut water blew the competition away in terms of muscle cramp-reducing potassium, it contained 400 mg/litre of sodium compared to 600 mg/litre for the other two drinks.

When people sweat, they lose more sodium than potassium. Sodium depletion can result in low blood sodium (or hyponatremia) — a condition that interferes with the maintenance of fluid balance, regulation of blood pressure, and normal function of the nervous system.

With that in mind, high impact athletes and serious exercisers are advised to stick to post-workout drinks that will replenish their sodium balance.

Also see: Are sports drinks really better than water?

The Globe notes that tennis player John Isner, loathe to give up his coconut water, mixes his brew with sea salt after a match — although that tactic may not tickle everyone's taste buds.

The good news, according to the same report, is that coconut water is still an excellent rehydration choice for lighter exercise.

"[Coconut water] has five times more potassium than Gatorade or Powerade," says study co-author Chhandashri Bhattacharya.

"Whenever you get cramps in your muscles, potassium will help you to get rid of the cramps. It's a healthy drink that replenishes the nutrients that your body has lost during a moderate workout."

That means weekend warriors heading out on a late afternoon hike can ditch the neon orange drink and confidently fill their backpacks with the potassium-rich concoction.

Watch the video below questioning the hype surrounding sports drinks.

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