Sports Drinks and Young Athletes
I’ve watched the pendulum swing back and forth on sports drinks. On one end of the spectrum, sports drinks were welcomed with open arms (and opened mouths) regardless of age or sport.
At the other end, I’ve seen sports drinks be banned from pools, soccer fields and courts.
Are sports drinks good for young athletes? Or, are they bad for them?
Is it the beverage? Or is it user error?
Sports Drink Consumption Trends
Young athletes guzzle sports drinks on the fields and courts across America. From pee wee soccer to elite high school sports, their popularity and consumption is on the rise, and it’s not limited to the athlete.
According to the website Statista, consumption of sports drinks has increased between 2014 to 2017, increasing from 4.3 to 5.1 gallons per capita (or per person).
Part of the reason is that more than a quarter (27%) of parents perceive sports drinks are a healthy option for their kids.
The Truth About Active Kids
What may surprise you to know is that most American children are not physically active enough to reap the benefits of a sports drink. Although practices may be scheduled for an hour or two, this isn’t a guarantee that your child will be active for long.
One study of soccer, baseball and softball players aged 7 to 14 found that in an average 1 ½ hour practice, athletes were only active for about 45 minutes. This is less activity than what many parents believe their athletes are getting.
The Downside of Too Many Sports Drinks
Additionally, research has identified a risk for unhealthy weight gain when kids consume sports drinks regularly.
Allison Field, a Harvard researcher, found that young athletes gained about 3.5# per year (a 0.3 increase in the BMI index) when they consumed a bottle (12 ounces) of sports drink each day.
She concluded that sports drinks may be worse than soda when it comes to kids’ health.
Rethink Your Sports Drink
If you’ve gotten into the habit of offering a sports drink each time your child or teen heads off to practice or a game, you may want to rethink your drink.
Here are some more things to think about:
Kids aren’t as physically active as they used to be
Most American children and teens are physically active for less than an hour at a time. This is the cut-off I use for whether they should use a sports drink or not.
Elite and high school athletes are, however, more likely to exercise for more than an hour. As such, they may benefit from using a sports drink during or after exercise.
When should a young athlete use a sports drink?
Children and teens engaged in exercise over one hour, or in high temperatures and/or humidity may benefit from the use of small amounts of sports drinks (a small 12 ounce bottle) to prevent dehydration.
Examples of intense physical activity are: football training during the summer, marathon training and races, back-to-back competitive soccer and tennis matches, swimming, and long cycling races.
Sports drinks are a source of calories and sugar
Consuming them may result in extra calories, sodium and sugar. Used inappropriately, sports drinks may contribute to unwanted or unhealthy weight gain.
They may also place children at higher risk for dental carries and may crowd out essential nutrients for growth and health.
Watch out for enticing marketing messages
Marketing and advertising efforts directed at children and teens entice them to purchase and consume sports drinks. Some common messages kids hear include:
Sports drinks are a healthy alternative to soda (they are not);
They help improve athletic performance (they can help keep a young athlete hydrated during extensive exercise);
Sports drinks increase energy levels (not proven);
They are a healthy thirst quencher (the salt content helps quench thirst).
Is Water Good Enough for Athletes?
In the presence of a balanced diet, drinking water before, during and after exercise may be enough to prevent dehydration, even with prolonged exercise.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that if children and teens are engaged in normal physical activity for three hours or less a day, plain water may be adequate.
So, if plain water can cover hydration needs without the potential negative side effects, doesn’t it make sense to rethink sports drinks?
Need More Help?
Got an athlete? Check out my sports nutrition program designed to teach and train the young athlete and his or her parents how to fuel for sports performance.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: March 17, 2015
Updated on: March 4, 2019