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Is that right? Coconut water is "nature's sports drink"?

Is coconut water really such a great "sports drink"?

I've been doing some Bikram yoga lately -- the "hot" yoga that's practiced for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees. One thing you want to be sure of when you do Bikram is to be well hydrated before you start, and replenish what you've sweated out when you're finished.

My first time in the studio, the instructor showed me after class the cooler full of beverages I could purchase to augment the water I'd brought. (Which, after 90 minutes in the studio, was ickily warm.) She made a point to mention the coconut water there. The container of the brand I bought, Zico, billed the product as "Nature's Sports Drink."

Bikram yoga's creator Bikram Choudhury has embraced coconut water in a big way, so it's no surprise that the stuff is sold in Bikram studios. The beverage is the clear liquid from the inside of a green, or unripe, coconut. It has very few calories (about 60 per 11-ounce serving), no fat and lots of the electrolyte potassium, which heavy sweating such as one does in a Bikram studio depletes.

But is coconut water really the best beverage for the job?

I asked Andrea Giancoli, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and one of my sources for this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column about another well-hyped class of beverages, energy drinks.

She noted that coconut water is fine, "if you like the taste." (Which, I have to say, I don't.) As for "the hype that it will cure everything from cancer to hypertension," Giancoli says, "There is no miracle food. Every time we 'miracle-ize' a food, we lose sight of its real benefits."

And those benefits are? "Coconut water is lower in calories than a Gatorade or juice," Giancoli says. Better yet, it's a "really good" source of potassium, delivering nearly 700 milligrams per serving, which is "more than a banana," she adds. We need potassium in our diets to, among other things, regulate our blood pressure.

But do we really need coconut water -- or any other "sports drink" -- after we exercise? Giancoli says "Most people don't exercise heavily enough to need a sports recovery drink. Water is just fine for most people."

As a guideline, Giancoli says if you're "sweating heavily for more than an hour, you need to replenish some of the glucose you've lost." And what about the sodium you sweat away? "Gatorade and coconut water don't have a lot of sodium," she says. (The sodium in Gatorade is mostly there to make it more palatable, "so you drink more," Giancoli says.) If you're low on sodium after vigorous exercise, she suggests eating salty pretzels.

Which I think would be very hard to swallow after hot yoga. But at least I like the way pretzels taste.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 7, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness , Yoga  
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Posted by: ancinabelen | May 7, 2010 7:12 AM | Report abuse

"The sodium in Gatorade is mostly there to make it more palatable, "so you drink more," Giancoli says."

Umm, ok, no. First, because I'm the biggest salt fiend I know, and even I find Gatorade so salty that I have trouble getting it down. But second, that's just wrong. It's common knowledge that Gatorade was developed in the late 60s specifically to help the University of Florida football team -- it was designed to replace what the scientists thought the players lost during exercise. And a big, big part of that was salt. It's hard to remember after so many decades of focus on LOW sodium, but back then, salt was a really, really big deal -- it was the "discovery," the hot new thing. I remember my dad, all through the '70s, taking salt pills after runs to replace the salt he had sweated out. He'd even lecture me that I shouldn't just have lemonade or Kool-Aid when I was hot and sweaty, because those things didn't have the salt my body needed -- that was just the conventional wisdom at the time. (If you lived in the South, you probably also heard about drinking pickle juice -- same basic concept, water with salt and sugar).

Personally, I don't drink Gatorade (or any energy drink) because I don't like the taste, and because if I'm suffering through a run to work off some calories, I don't want to drink that all back! It sounds like coconut juice might be a reasonable choice for folks who prefer the "natural" vs. "manufactured" approach. For me, I usually just drink water. Although for a long, hot round of golf, when my energy starts to flag, I'll go for the peanut M&M's -- bad for me, yes, but at least they taste good, and have a little protein to boot. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | May 7, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

I'm with laura33 on the Gatorade salt info--that sodium was originally put there for a reason. Maybe it's the wrong reason, but back when it was invented, they put it in on purpose for post-exercise replenishment.

I've loved coconut water for decades, but I've never thought of it as a "health drink." If you don't want to buy the overpriced yuppie fad stuff (which tastes kind of stale compared to fresh coconut water), Goya makes cans that generally sell for less than that nasty Zico crap. The cans come with little bits of coconut meat in them, so you have to constantly swirl the liquid or use one of those bubble tea straws so you don't miss them. These cans have been available for years and years in area grocery stores, way before it became trendy to drink coconut water.

DC area residents, Banana Leaf near Dupont also sells coconut water with really big strips/chunks of coconut meat.

Posted by: dkp01 | May 7, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Coconut milk is a very nutrient-dense food containing calcium, Omega 3 fats, fiber and protein. It is a sweet treat that you can add to smoothies, or just take alone as a nutritional supplement. Try cooking with coconut milk. One tbsp. of coconut milk contains about 120 calories, so consume it in small amounts.

Go to your local Asian food store: Chinese, Vietnamese or Filipino. You can buy coconut milk in an aluminum cam - just like a coke or pepsi.

Posted by: alance | May 7, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

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