July 10, 2019

Skip the sports and energy drinks

Pediatrician Kate Land shares advice about healthy options for staying hydrated.

Sports drinks are everywhere. The large bottles of brightly colored drinks are a common feature at kids’ sports events — seen in baseball dugouts and the sidelines of football games. Many of our kids drink them regularly. Parents hand them out with snacks after youth soccer games, and our kids pack them for lunch.

But are these drinks a healthy choice? Not often — most of the time they provide kids with unneeded sugar-based calories and chemicals.

Sports drinks contain sugars, salts, minerals, and sometimes vitamins, along with dyes and flavoring. They are marketed to replace electrolytes lost while sweating and to maximize sports performance.

But sports drinks should not be used for lunches or snacks. Even after short practices or games, plain water will do the trick just fine.

Routinely consuming sports drinks can be harmful because it:

  • Puts kids at risk for weight problems, due to the amount of sugar in the drinks
  • May erode tooth enamel due to the drinks’ acidity

When should you consider giving your kids sports drinks?

In hot, humid conditions, and for longer durations of intense exercise or tournament play (with repeated games on one day), sports drinks may be helpful. A common-sense answer to this question is that if your child is sweating a lot, he or she may benefit from a small sports drink. After losing lots of sweat, a sports drink can help rehydrate, replace lost electrolytes, and give players an energy boost.

Our body generates energy for movement through the use of carbohydrates in the muscles (glycogen) and bloodstream (glucose). As athletes play and their level of exertion is intense (enough to make them breathe hard and have an increased heart rate), they start to use up some of the body’s energy stores. Sports drinks can replenish those stores by providing energy in the form of glucose and fructose (another type of sugar that can become energy) to an athlete.

Sports drinks are different from energy drinks 

The energy in “sports drinks” is different in form and function from “energy drinks” — and it’s important for parents and players to understand the difference. 

Energy drinks contain caffeine and other stimulants. These drinks are often labelled inaccurately and, when tested, have much higher levels of stimulants than shown on the package. One ingredient to look out for is guarana, a plant extract with 40 times the power of caffeine. 

Energy drinks have no place in kids’ diets. On the other hand, sports drinks may, in specific situations, such as during intense workouts to replace electrolytes. But we need to educate kids that there’s a difference between these types of drinks. Older kids may not understand the difference between energy and sports drinks – putting themselves at risk of excessive caffeine intake. 

To avoid these risks, stick to water. It’s refreshing, chemical- and sugar-free, and rehydrates our kids well in most situations. Let’s drink water to that!

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Kate Land, MD, is a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Vacaville Medical Center and author of the Thriving Families blog. Find her on Twitter @kpkiddoc