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Is Gatorade Zero a Healthier Way to Electrolytes?

No sugar, no calories, no problems, right?

In the 2006 film Idiocracy, global agricultural production completely grinds to a halt because some idiot decided to replace water with a Gatorade-equivalent named “Brawndo” in the plant-watering process.

The theory behind the switch went like this: Thirst-quenching sports drinks are the superior means of achieving hydration for human bodies. Therefore, they will produce a healthier class of plant life as well. As a result of this specious reasoning, the entire world is plunged into chaos when “the thirst mutilator” also mutilates all of Earth’s crops and wrecks the global economy along with it.

Electrolyte-induced pandemics aside, there is one benefit to all of this: If we strip away the caloric content of sports drinks like Gatorade — as in the case of Gatorade Zero, Gatorade’s version of Diet Coke — we can compare it to water on an even, zero-calorie playing field. Which, of course, also allows us to investigate an even more pressing matter — whether or not Gatorade Zero is any good for you in the first place, or if you should just stick with water instead. 

So… is it good for me?

We can attack this question by starting with a different question: “What exactly is Gatorade good for?” As the initial entry into the “sports drink” category, Gatorade was formulated in 1965 to provide literal aid to the figurative Gators of the University of Florida. The theory was that Florida’s athletes lost beneficial nutrients other than water through their sweat, and that drinking water failed to restore everything their bodies required for optimal performance. The scientists at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine cooked up a mixture that included sodium, sugar, potassium and phosphate in an attempt to replicate the nutrient mixture lost in sweat

Did it work? If you believe the majority of the stories that emerged following the 1967 Orange Bowl — a game the Gators won 27-12 — it worked fabulously.

Since the mid-1960s, Gatorade has undergone several permutations, but at the core of its marketing is its promise to keep athletes hydrated during intense physical exercise or competition. This seems to be where a clear line needs to be drawn in terms of delineating whether or not Gatorade Zero is actually good for you. The better question to ask might be, “When is Gatorade Zero supposed to be good for you?”

Fine. When am I supposed to drink Gatorade Zero?

Just like regular Gatorade, Gatorade Zero is intended to be used by athletes who are losing minerals through intense exercise. This category has commonly included athletes who are training or competing for an hour or more at a time, athletes who sweat profusely due to the heat of the environments they perform in or athletes who are just atypically excessive sweaters. If you fall into any of these categories, Gatorade Zero will probably be good for you, especially in light of the fact that it won’t be offsetting the calorie-burning benefits of your workouts by flooding your system with a deluge of sugar.

Okay, then, so you’re saying I should be using Gatorade Zero instead of regular Gatorade?

This is a tricky one. If your goal is specifically weight loss, and you think of Gatorade Zero as the equivalent to a diet soft drink, you might be tempted to think that you’re adding to the weight-loss benefits of your training by swapping out your high-calorie Gatorade with its zero-calorie alternative. 

But this brings us right back to the notion of establishing what sports drinks are intended for. The reason sugar has always been included in the standard formulas for Gatorade is because your muscles need it. Sugar was deemed an essential nutrient to supplement for maintaining the optimal performance level of athletes if their training and competitions are extending beyond the one-hour mark in duration. So, if you’re training for a half marathon — and your goal is to equip your body to withstand the two-hour stress and pounding of that specific race — you’re doing yourself no favors by eschewing 200 calories of muscle-fueling sugar right when it requires it the most.

Should I be asking any other questions?

How about: “Could Gatorade Zero be bad for me?”

Yes… no… maybe so.

If your body isn’t expelling sodium at a rate that would necessitate the guzzling of a sports drink that was designed to aid a figurative Gator, the accumulation of salt in your system is going to result in your body doing all of the things it typically does when it’s attempting to work its way through an imbalance in its sodium-to-water ratio. Short-term, the salt buildup will probably make you thirstier, causing you to drink even more fluids, and resulting in more frequent trips to the bathroom. It’s also likely to spike your blood pressure. Long-term, high sodium intake can contribute to many health problems that can eventually do you in. High blood pressure alone is among the leading causes of strokes.

Gatorade Zero also contains food dye, which some people suspect of causing cancer, and which many food purists would love to link to cancer. However, at the moment, there is no conclusive evidence that food dye causes cancer.

So to answer your original question, yes, Gatorade Zero can be good for you, provided that you’re using it for its intended purpose, and provided you realize what you’re sacrificing by foregoing the sugar contained in regular Gatorade. If you are, you’ll probably be able to extend your cardio sessions a bit more comfortably. If you’re not, you’ll likely end up drinking a bunch of post-workout soda and making an embarrassing number of trips to the bathroom. 

Whatever you do, just don’t use it to water your plants, because I already know how that movie ends.