Most of us would require zero convincing that a sweet soda is refreshment gold after a heavy athletic effort, but is it, in any way, healthy? And if it’s not healthy, is it all that bad?
My diet is a pretty healthy—if repetitive—rotation of fresh fruit and vegetables with the occasional spike of something really luxurious. The whisky and ice cream sort of luxurious, that is. It’s a thoughtful diet but not meticulously constructed.
Before “locating” myself in this delightful balance, I was the “I’ve had an apple for the day, and that’s my day’s dessert” kind of individual. While the humble, gloriously red and crisp fruit holds its own as a delightful thing, decadent chocolate cakes, richly marbled ice creams, and delicate macaroons (i.e. real desserts) sit in an altogether different category.
One delight I have deprived myself of, with a fair amount of convincing that “I simply don’t like it,” is soda. Coca-Cola, strangely the diet variant more so, has itself neatly fixed at the topmost seat of carbonated beverages I most enjoy.
And here’s how I’ve come to recognize that
In the last months, I’ve taken running more seriously. I got the gear, joined a group of talented and encouraging runners, and bumped up my mileage—each night’s run a daily thanksgiving for the ability to move my legs.
And one day, a member of the group handed me a Coca-Cola.
I take a sip, the burnt caramel color filling my mouth, bubbling across my tongue, leaving a sweet, absolutely refreshing residue of flavor where a liquid beverage had just been. If life in that moment were being captured in a movie told from my perspective, I’d look right in the camera, break the fourth wall, and say, “Damn, that’s good.”
So I stocked the fridge with soda, but then wondered how healthy it was
From a once-a-week, post-long run refresher, the hurriedly gulped can of Coke became a regular hydration beverage. It had gained an insider knowledge mystique, as though the discipled few who consumed the beverage do more than refresh themselves but perform startlingly well.
Andrew Hamilton, a sports science writer and researcher specializing in sports nutrition, notes the possibility that the caffeine in Coke enhances athletic ability, “perhaps by increasing muscular power and/or enhancing muscle function during the late stages of very prolonged exercise.”
Aside from the benefit of caffeine, other researchers have looked at the carbohydrate content of the beverage. One 2017 study found that fructose in beverages may act on central fatigue and/or later metabolic regulation, possibly resulting in improved performance.
Especially when Hamilton writes about the feasibility of mixing two parts Coke and one part water and using that as a performance drink, one wonders if they’ve found “the secret stuff”—as though we were the Toon Squad lured back into athletic battle by Bugs Bunny.
But the secret stuff was just water
Yeah, Bugs just wrote “Michael’s Secret Stuff” on a regular bottle of water. Hamilton, on the other hand, eventually notes that you should “Always choose fruit and vegetable juices over Coke for your daily fluid consumption” citing that it simply doesn’t have the same vitamin or mineral content.
Rather than just lacking in essential good things, excessive consumption of these beverages may take you a few steps closer to undesirable incidents. A 2019 study found that soft drink consumption during and following exercise in heat increases markers of acute kidney injury. Note though that this doesn’t spell the undoing of our drinking any carbonated beverages at all.
In addition, a 2016 study looked at the effects of moderate exercise on the kidneys of rats that had chronically consumed cola drinks. It found that while the chronic consumption was associated with a number of negative findings, moderate exercise proved preventative.
Too restrictive isn’t beneficial
It seems apt at this point to return to the journey I’ve had from the highly restrictive, apples-as-dessert kind of guy to the balanced-diet-nourished-individual I am today. On its own, consuming at least three-fourths of a birthday cake (and I’ve done that on two occasions—it was only my birthday on one of the two), isn’t nutritious. But it isn’t entirely detrimental either.
So, by all means reward yourself with Coca-Cola on your difficult efforts.
But, a friendly alternative—for which I too have found a soft spot for—is soda water and lemon. This beverage is more decidedly healthy. Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., RD, a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, suggests that some brands of soda water or seltzer are even more hydrating than regular water owing to their sodium content, which helps the body retain water. Just be ready: This stuff is bubbly and can definitely leave you feeling bloated.
But for goodness’ sake, enjoy yourself rather than restricting yourself in the name of performance or some sort of goal.
Your health expands beyond the workouts you do, beyond the food, well into the mind, and somewhere in that mix, into what you drink while you’re working out. And if the creative expression you want to make as the athlete you want to be has you sipping on a delightful Coke after a run or gulping down a bubbling seltzer, by all means do it.