Q: Is there an alternative to sports drinks that works as well?

A: A banana might reasonably replace sports drinks, according to a new study. 

It found that a banana, with its all-natural package, provides comparable or greater anti-inflammatory and other benefits for athletes than sports drinks.

For decades, studies have confirmed that eating or drinking carbohydrates during prolonged exertion can enable someone to continue for longer or at higher intensities and recover more quickly. The carbohydrates rapidly fuel muscles, lessening physiological stress and prompting less inflammation. The most digestible and portable form of carbohydrates is sugar, and for athletes, this sugar is frequently provided through sports drinks. 

A few years ago, researchers at the North Carolina Research Campus of Appalachian State University, began to wonder about fruits as a healthier alternative during exercise. Most fruits, including bananas, are sugary and high in fructose.

The experiment, published in PLOS One, used sophisticated techniques to track molecular changes inside cyclists’ bodies. As they had expected, the scientists found that swallowing only water resulted in relatively high levels of inflammatory markers in the riders’ blood. These markers were much lower if the cyclists had consumed fruit or the sports drink, said David Nieman, the study’s lead author.

He and his colleagues do not know whether half a standard banana every 30 minutes is the ideal amount during exertion. Although it provided as many carbohydrates as in a cup of the sports drink, it also resulted in “quite a bit of bloating,” he said, which might dampen some athletes’ enthusiasm.

— Gretchen Reynolds, The New York Times