There's nothing that makes me cringe more than sports drinks on the sidelines of youth sports. Okay, maybe frosted cupcakes on the sidelines of youth sports make me cringe a little bit more. But sports drinks are a very close second. Because the fact of the matter is, most kids just don't need them.
Sports drinks were originally created for competitive athletes who needed quick, convenient refueling. They were designed to replenish carbohydrates, plus sodium and potassium lost through sweat. They weren't made for kids playing a 45-minute soccer game (yes, even if they're sweating). They definitely weren't made for my six year old pee-wee flag football player, who spends just as much time standing around fiddling with his mouth guard as he does running around the field.
"Most kids in recreational sports don't need a sports drink, because they play for less than an hour, and many who have games that last longer than an hour aren't running and active the whole time," says Jill Castle, RD, author of the forthcoming book Eat Like A Champion. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees. In their 2011 clinical report, they state that water is "the appropriate first choice for hydration before, during, and after most exercise regimens". For typical sports practices and games, electrolytes lost through sweat can be replaced with the next snack or meal. According to the AAP report, "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."
What these drinks DO offer: A whole lot of stuff children don't need, like added sugar (as much as 8 teaspoons in a 20-ounce bottle), citric acid that can erode tooth enamel, artificial flavors, synthetic food dyes, and additives like thickeners and stabilizers. Yet the marketing must be working, because every weekend I see parents schlepping packs of neon yellow, blue, and red drinks to the sidelines and passing them around after games.
Yes, there are exceptions. "Middle school and high school athletes may need sports drinks if they're exercising for longer than an hour, have back-to-back competitive events like an all-day soccer tournament, or are exercising in hot, humid weather that increases the risk for dehydration, such as a heat wave in May when kids aren't used to the heat or football players in full dress for a game in August," says Castle.
Otherwise, kids can stay hydrated by drinking water and replenish any lost electroylets through food. For instance, they can get potassium and sodium in a banana and a handful of crackers. Or they can simply come home after their game or practice and sit down for lunch or dinner.
If you'd like to see fewer sports drinks on the sidelines of your child's team, consider talking to the coach or other team parents. Check out my Sports Snacktivism Handbook for sample emails and other resources for making change happen.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author ofCooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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Image: Sports drinks via Shutterstock