Sports Drinks and Active Kids 37647

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about what kids should—and shouldn't—drink, especially when they're active. And with summer just days away, it's likely your kids are spending a lot more time outdoors, running around and breaking into a sweat. But should sports drinks be part of their hydration equation?

As I wrote about in a recent post, a new health campaign in California aims to reduce intake of soda, sports drinks and other sugary beverages and increase water intake to reduce obesity.

And if you live in New York City, you've probably seen the latest incarnations of the "Are You Pouring on the Pounds" ad campaign, first launched by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2011. The new ads splashed across buses and featured on TV represent the latest attempt to inform consumers about the high levels of added sugar found in sports and energy drinks, fruity drinks, and sweet tea. The ads also warn consumers that although they sound healthy, sports drinks pack in a lot of added sugars that contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes. On a positive note, the campaign encourages healthful replacements including water, seltzer and fat-free milk.

Any parent of an active child knows that blue, orange, and red sports drinks and vitamin waters are often the beverages of choice at practices and games. These beverages are popular not only because kids like their sweet taste, but because they're available and advertised everywhere. A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in 2010, Gatorade TV ads were ranked among the top five most-advertised products seen by children and adolescents. The fact that these drinks are also endorsed by athletes who many kids emulate only adds to their appeal.

The truth is, whether for sports or recreational activity, most kids don't need sports drinks. They provide few nutrients and leave less room in the diet for more healthful foods and beverages. They also contribute to tooth decay and erosion of tooth enamel. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that while small amounts may be appropriate for children who participate in vigorous physical activity in hot, humid conditions for more than one hour, most kids who engage in routine physical activity for less than three hours in normal weather need only water. The Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also says sports drinks, which (like soda) are primarily sugar water, are not appropriate for school-age kids. The CSPI also notes these drinks provide added sodium—something many children over consume—and questionable ingredients such as artificial flavors.

So how can we parents help turn the tide, and encourage our kids to have more healthful drinking habits—especially when they're active? We can take a stand against sports drinks and other sugary beverages by just saying no. We can offer water as the first—and best—hydrator when our kids are thirsty. We can add some flavor to water by infusing it with some fresh fruit slices or a splash of 100 percent fruit juice. In addition to water, we can offer our kids appropriate amounts of nutrient-rich beverages such as low- or nonfat plain milk, fortified soy beverages, and 100 percent fruit juice—options offered in MyPlate and current dietary guidelines.

But we also need to be realistic. We need to realize that we have a lot less control over what our kids drink when they're away from home than when they're at home. We can set a healthful example and encourage our kids to drink only water and nutritious beverages when they're at home or on-the-go with us. But they may very well want to have one of those colorful beverages—or some soda, or a fruity beverage—on the ball field or when with friends who also drink them.

I tell my own children that unless they're exercising for several hours at a time, water is their best hydrator. I tell them I rather them not consume sports drinks because of their high sugar content. But I also tell them that if they want a sports drink, soda or other sugary beverage once-in-a-while, it's ok—as long as they count it as a daily treat as they would cookies or candy. Would I rather them avoid nutrient-devoid sugary beverages altogether? Absolutely. But I don't think an occasional sugary drink is any worse for their bodies or their overall health than a handful or candy or a few cookies.

What are your thoughts? Do you think sports drinks are OK for kids?