Sports Drinks: Hydrating or Harming Our Kids?

When children ask for drinks by color, there may be a problem

We’re sold on sports drinks as the catalyst to jump higher, ride faster, further. It goes without question; we just drink them, whether they’re necessary or not.

That has trickled down — no, rushed down — to our kids. Visit a soccer field, gymnasium or an inactive lunchroom, and you’re bound to see kids slugging back a rainbow selection of cleverly marketed drinks in disposable plastic. Bad habits start young.

So adults aren’t the only ones with addictive drinking problems.

I may be “that mom” who hands out boxes of raisins on Halloween, but I know I’m not the only one bothered by this phenomenon. We’ve become complacent about our diets.

As an athlete myself, I wonder how these drinks have become so enmeshed in our kids’ sports culture. A bottle of Gatorade isn’t far removed from a snack bag of potato chips, half a bag of Skittles and a bottle of water.

“Can I have the blue one?” a swimmer asks at a concession stand, looking beyond the bottle, convinced it may earn her a podium spot.

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When a child requests a drink by color, why isn’t it raising a red flag for parents? Because we’re in the habit of pushing “non-carbonated soda” on our athletic kids. And with water fountains nearly extinct, kids and parents have turned to vending machines and convenience stores instead.

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“Over-sugared and colored beverages, whether ‘natural’ or not, add no nutritional value to my children’s diet or health,” said Stefanie Sacks, a culinary nutritionist and mother of two athletic boys.

“Keeping kids hydrated during sports is critical,” she added. “Water is my drink of choice. Unless kids are doing a herculean type activity, electrolyte loss shouldn’t be a big worry – which is what most sport drink producers want you to believe.”

Why, then, are they our kids’ go-to drinks?

Gatorade, a division of PepsiCo Inc., has cornered 46 percent of the multi-billion dollar sports drink market, according to Euromonitor International. And we should have reasonable doubt that they have our health in mind.

Sports drinks have a lot in common with soda — namely, their high sugar content. In a 20-ounce serving, Gatorade contains 34 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar, while soda contains 69 grams or 16 teaspoons of sugar.

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If Sacks feels that her boys are in need “of extra mineral power,” she opts for Emergen-C in water or coconut water instead.

A new study from the University of Bath in England suggests that a spoonful of table sugar added to water may be a palatable solution. Lead researcher Dr. Javier Gonzalez found that exercise feels easier and the gut feels better with sucrose, not glucose. He noted that many sports drinks on the market rely heavily upon glucose or fructose as their sweeteners.

A self-regulation program was created by the food industry, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), with goals to limit unhealthy advertising to kids. These efforts to prevent childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes may be in vain, with no significant improvements noted in marketing since self-regulation began, according to industry evaluations with the National Center of Biotechnology Information.

Athletes survived before the advent of sports drinks and energy bars. They simply drank water and ate whole foods. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the old-timers, many of whom remain healthier than our youth.

Jewels Doskicz is an Arizona-based registered nurse with 20 years of experience. She’s a passionate patient advocate and health consultant. 

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