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What's the Best Sports Drink for Kids?

Food experts and pediatricians weigh in on the marketing hype of sports drinks for our kids



PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

“Sports drinks are the new cigarettes,” says Kurt Beecher Dammeier. Strong words, but Dammeier believes it’s an important message for parents. The local businessman behind Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and Pasta & Co. has spent the past 10 years educating school-aged children about nutrition through his Pure Food Kids Foundation. 

As Dammeier coached his children’s sports teams, he saw how strongly both players and parents believed the beverages were necessary for peak performance, and how much marketing was targeted at kids and teens, including representatives from sports drink manufacturers coming to practices and games, touting the benefits. 

In a 2011 clinical study, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that “Sports and energy drinks are heavily marketed to children and adolescents, but in most cases kids don’t need them — and some of these products contain substances that could be harmful to children.” 

The AAP also recommends that water, not sports drinks, should be the principal source of hydration for children and adolescents.

“When I was a kid, the halftime ritual for sports was water and orange slices, so when I began coaching baseball and football, that was my routine too,” says Dammeier. “But over the years I noticed parents who would be giving their kids Gatorade on the sidelines, concerned that they needed it.”

To Dammeier, sports-drink marketing is eerily similar to how cigarettes were marketed, when athletes and physicians endorsed cigarettes for health benefits, including stress relief, better digestion and increased energy. 

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

“Powerade, Gatorade, and Vitaminwater, they all know they’re selling you sugary drinks with additives and dyes. And yet, these ads with celebrities and athletes are all about energy and endurance. The ‘boost’ kids get from sports drinks is primarily due to the sugar,” says Dammeier. “All that added sugar is a slow death, wholly unnecessary, and yet it’s marketed to you with health and performance claims.” 

Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, agrees that sports drinks are packed with added sugar and follows the AAP’s recommendations. “Energy drinks are never needed for kids. On the sports-drink side, it is confusing,” says Grow. “The biggest drawback with sports drinks is that they have a lot of sugar, and we do know that increased sugar in our diets contributes to obesity, diabetes, cavities and other health problems.

“There are circumstances where athletes can benefit from sports drinks, such as marathoners,” says Grow. “However, the vast majority of kids who are in sports don’t need sports drinks, and many are consuming them when they’re not actively doing sports.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than doubled in America over the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Obese children and adolescents are likely to be obese as adults, and are more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

Less than 10 percent of a child’s daily diet should come from added sugar, says Grow, who points out that many already consume a lot of added sugars through bread, cereal, yogurt and other hidden sources. Consider a mid-size 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade, which contains 2.5 servings, but is easily consumed by one adolescent over the course of a practice, for more than 50 grams of sugar. That’s twice the World Health Organization’s daily recommended amount of added sugar for adults. 

According to a study in the February 2016 issue of Pediatrics, 66 percent of children between ages 2 and 11 drink sugar-sweetened
beverages daily. It said certain types of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as flavored waters and fruit and sports drinks, particularly may need warning labels because studies show parents tend to believe these are healthy options for children.

“I personally don’t like to see kids thinking that something external is responsible for their performance, more than their own drive, practice and commitment,” says Anne-Marie Gloster, Ph.D., RD, a registered dietitian and food science lecturer at the University of Washington.

Gloster says research shows that sports drinks cause kids to gain more weight than soda, likely due to the perception that they’re healthy for you. So what do kids involved in youth sports need? “They need water, lots of water, and fresh fruit pre-cut, with natural sugars,” she says. “If you’re giving your child a sports drink because you’re worried about electrolytes, then cut it in half and dilute it with water.

“Remember who Gatorade was created for; college football players in Florida, training for hours on end. Not kids,” Gloster says. 

Dammeier urges parents to do two things: read food and beverage labels carefully, and vote with their dollars. “The biggest thing we do as consumers is vote with our dollars, and we vote with every dollar,” he says. “If we vote well, it can influence food manufacturers.” 

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