If you’re a parent to athletic and active kids, I’m sure that question always comes around when grocery shopping; “mom can we buy this?” Between the appealing colors, an array of flavors, and the begging, it’s sometimes hard to say no! Registered dietitian and professional mom Sally is here to help you maneuver around them.
Sports drinks all over the sidelines at kid sports events, and even on playgrounds and in backyards on hot summer days. A lot of kids seem to like them–but are they healthy or even necessary? But are they something kids even need?
Here are some facts you should know about sports drinks.
What are sports drinks?
Sports drinks were invented decades ago for elite athletes. The goal was to quickly refuel and hydrate these athletes so they could have more energy and endurance while competing. When you’re dehydrated, your blood sugar dips, or your muscles are depleted of carbohydrates, you can feel weak, dizzy, and even sick.
So most sports drinks contain three things: water for hydration, carbohydrates to give energy to muscles and boost the blood sugar, and electrolytes to replace any losses in sweat.
Sports drinks are not the same thing as energy drinks, which usually contain caffeine.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes sound fancy but they’re actually just minerals like sodium and potassium that help keep your body working properly. When you sweat heavily, you can lose some of those minerals in your sweat.
Sports drinks can help replace any electrolytes lost in sweat. But sodium and potassium are also both found in foods, so kids can easily get them in a snack or meal after sports, such as a banana (loaded with potassium) or crackers (a source of sodium).
In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “For most children and adolescents, daily electrolyte requirements are met sufficiently by a healthy balanced diet; therefore, sports drinks offer little to no advantage over plain water.”
Are sports drinks better for hydration?
It’s true that sports drinks are good at hydrating because the flavoring can encourage you to drink more, especially for people who don’t love the taste of plain water.
Water is enough for most kids
In their clinical report, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that water is “the appropriate first choice for hydration before, during, and after most exercise regimens.” That’s because most kids aren’t engaged in the kind of strenuous activity that sports drinks were originally designed for.
In fact, in one study of 6-12 year old boys, researchers found that more than half of their sport time was spent either in sedentary or light-intensity activity. Whether it’s playing in the yard in the summer, participating in a 1-hour soccer game, or standing in the outfield for a t-ball game in the heat, they all require hydration for sure, but not necessarily sports drinks.
For more on hydration, plus fun ways to infuse water with fresh fruit, veggies and herbs, check out this month’s Food Rx video: All About Hydration.
Food contains electrolytes too
Electrolytes aren’t special ingredients found only in sports drinks–they’re minerals, which are in food too. Sports drinks and electrolyte powders typically contain the electrolytes sodium and potassium. But kids can easily get those easily in a snack or meal after sports, like a banana (potassium) or crackers (sodium).
According to the AAP, “for most children and adolescents, daily electrolyte requirements are met sufficiently by a healthy balanced diet; therefore, sports drinks offer little to no advantage over plain water.”
Sports drinks contain a lot of ingredients
If you look for simpler ingredient lists on food packages, sports drinks don’t fit the bill. Many contain citric acid, a flavoring that can be tough on tooth enamel. Many are colored with synthetic food dyes, which have been linked in some research to worsening attention problems in some children. A 20-ounce bottle of sports drink also packs as much as eight teaspoons of added sugar.
Regularly sipping on sports drinks can be hard on tooth enamel too, thanks to the citric acid used for flavoring.
But aren’t sports drinks healthy?
Thanks to sports drink marketing, many parents believe that sports drinks are necessary and even good for kids. In one research study from Yale University, more than a quarter of parents rate sports drinks as “somewhat healthy” or “very healthy”. There’s a belief that sports drinks are somehow healthier for kids than other sweetened drinks.
So are sports drinks ever right for kids?
Yes, sports drinks can be helpful for some children and teens in sports, especially for endurance events, all-day tournaments, or times when they’re exercising intensely for more than an hour and need quick refueling. That’s because it’s a lot easier to take sips of a sports drink on a break between games than to sit down and have a snack.
Sports drinks can also be helpful if your child is recovering from a stomach bug. The body loses electrolytes through vomiting and diarrhea, and the light flavor might be more appealing than plain water when they’re feeling bad and trying to rehydrate.
What about sugar-free sports drinks?
You may have seen sugar-free sports drinks and wondered if those are a better choice. It’s true that they don’t contain the sugar of regular sports drinks, only electrolytes and water for hydration. They also typically contain artificial sweeteners.
If the main goal is to hydrate, they’re fine. But if your kid is involved in an endurance event or really feeling depleted, you’ll be better off with something that contains sugar so it provides carbohydrates for energy too.
Can I make my own sports drink?
Yes, you sure can! Here’s a recipe for a homemade sports drink.
If you’re looking for an alternative post-workout recovery drink, consider chocolate milk, which contains potassium and a little bit of sodium, plus carbs for energy and protein to help rebuild muscles.