The Best Affordable, Sugar-Free Sports Drink

This post is from Christine, one of my personal training clients.

About a month ago, I started feeling lightheaded during workouts and whenever I stood up. It started interfering with my day-to-day activities, and I had no idea what was causing it.

When I asked my doctor what was going on, he said that my intense personal training sessions were causing me to lose a lot of sodium and potassium along with all that sweat. He strongly recommended that I drink Gatorade throughout the day and especially after workouts, as if it was the only way to replenish my electrolytes.

Ingesting sugar is about the worst thing you can do for a diet, and I wasn’t about to make Gatorade a regular part of my recovery plan. Instead, I went on a quest to find a superior sugar-free electrolyte drink—one that would give me all the perks of Gatorade without the calories.

I evaluated three different drinks—Gatorade G2, ZICO Coconut Water, and Nuun U Natural Hydration tablets—trying each one for about a week along with continuing my rigorous workout regimen. They all performed pretty much the same; as long as I was drinking some sort of electrolyte drink, the lightheadedness went away.

But when it came down to things like sweeteners, calories, artificial coloring, and flavor, there were some significant differences, which I’ve noted below. Calorie counts, grams of sugar, and other stats are based on a 32-ounce serving, which is about what I need to drink each day to keep the lightheadedness at bay.

Gatorade G2

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Flavor: Surprisingly tasty, and not as sugary as I expected. Still, it’s definitely sweeter than I like my drinks to be. It also has that nasty artificial sweetener aftertaste.

Sugar/Calories/Artificial Stuff: Even the low calorie version, G2, is loaded with stuff you don’t want in your body: artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners, plus 17 grams of sugar. The calorie count is rather low—only 85 calories; however, there’s certainly enough sugar in here to derail your diet.

Sodium and Potassium: Gatorade lives up to its reputation as a good source of electrolytes—one bottle delivers 400 mg of sodium and 112.5 mg of potassium.

Price: I bought a 32-ounce bottle for $0.89.

Overall: Gatorade really is a star when it comes to providing electrolytes cheaply. However, the sugar and artificial ingredients outweigh any benefit in my mind. The Gatorade quandary reminds me of something that Andrea and I have discussed several times—that good nutrition is an investment in your overall health. It’s going to cost more to eat right, but you’ll enjoy a longer, healthier, and more productive life because of the choices you make now. In short, there’s no way I’ll be drinking Gatorade after workouts, especially since better alternatives exist.

ZICO Coconut Water

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Flavor: I love the taste of coconut water, but there are plenty of people who don’t. If you’re one of the haters, you can easily find flavored coconut water, but I haven’t personally tried it and can’t vouch for its flavor.

Sugar/Calories/Artificial Stuff: A 32-ounce bottle contains 172 calories and 40 grams of sugar. These figures actually surprised me given that coconut water is touted as such a healthy alternative to sports drinks. However, unlike Gatorade, you’ll find nothing artificial here—just pure, natural coconut water.

Sodium and Potassium: Coconut water is loaded with potassium—1980 mg to be exact. It also has 156 mg of sodium. In both areas, coconut water blows Gatorade out of the water.

Price: I purchased a 32-ounce bottle on sale for $3.50.

Overall: Honestly, I’m a bit surprised coconut water isn’t the standout winner. I always thought it was super healthy, but the sugar content will definitely keep you from reaching your weight loss goals. I suppose you could reduce your daily intake to maybe 16 ounces, but you’d be missing out on all that sodium, which is extremely important after a hard workout. The other downside is the price. I certainly don’t have $105 dollars to spend on coconut water every month. All in all, I would say I’ll have to pass on this option as well.

Nuun U Natural Hydration

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Flavor: Nuun is a line of effervescent tablets that you add to water. I tried the Cucumber Mint flavor because it was on sale. I didn’t care for it initially, but it’s grown on me to the point where now I actually crave it. If mint doesn’t float your boat, you can try one of several other flavors, which include Goji Berry Green Tea (update: this is my new favorite) and Tangerine Ginger.

Sugar/Calories/Artificial Stuff: Nuun’s mission is to provide tasty electrolyte drinks without carbohydrates, which makes their products a refreshing alternative to both coconut water and Gatorade. Their regular line of products contains artificial sweeteners, but the natural version is sweetened with stevia and, as you might guess from the name, contains only natural ingredients. You need two tablets to make 32-ounces of sports drink, which contains zero sugars and only 12 calories. Nuun is a definite winner when it comes to weight loss.

Sodium and Potassium: Two tablets contain 358 mg of sodium and 154 mg of potassium, about the same as Gatorade.

Price: I bought eight tubes on sale at Vitacost for $31.99. Each tube contains 16 servings, and I drink two servings a day. That equates to $0.50 a day or $15 per month, which is much more doable than coconut water and even cheaper than Gatorade!

Overall: For me, this is the obvious winner. There’s really no drawback to Nuun, and it beats the other two drinks in every category. It doesn’t derail my weight loss program, and it gives me the sodium and potassium I need to keep up a rigorous workout regimen. The only downside is that I haven’t been able to find it locally; online is your best bet.