Keeping our young athletes hydrated is key

Well-intentioned parents may be tempted to send their children out to play or off to the game with a bottle of their favorite sports drink, hoping to keep them hydrated. You may be surprised to learn that in most cases, this isn’t a good idea.

For the majority of children participating in school athletic teams or activities, sports drinks are simply unnecessary. When activity is less than 60 minutes or is intermittent and not intense, plain water is all your youngster needs to maintain hydration.

Don’t Be Fooled by the Health Halo

Nutritionists use the term “health halo” to describe foods and drinks people view as healthful due to a specific attribute. Sports drinks have earned this label, likely because they’re associated with physical activity and are promoted by athletes and teams.

But do sports drinks really offer an advantage over plain water? Most pediatric sports medicine experts say, “No!”

What You Drink Can Hurt You

Parents know typical teenagers will say that even if sports drinks aren’t necessary, they won’t hurt you. But, these drinks actually contain enough sugar, sodium (salt), and calories to cause health consequences like weight gain and tooth decay. And most kids already get more than the recommended daily allowance of sodium.

Vitamin waters and energy drinks are often used interchangeably with sports drinks. These products are designed to supplement your diet or energy with additives such as vitamins, minerals, caffeine, or herbal ingredients like St. John’s wort and taurine.

There have been few studies on the use of herbal ingredients in children, but we do know parents need to be concerned about caffeine’s side effects—increased heart rate and blood pressure, agitation, and jitteriness. And because many food products such as breakfast cereals and breads are also vitamin-fortified, children may be consuming excessive amounts of vitamins, especially if they also take a daily multivitamin.

The Bottom Line on Sports Drinks

For kids involved in intense and prolonged physical activity, sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade may provide a quick source of energy (simple carbohydrates) and may help replace electrolytes such as sodium and potassium that are lost with sweating. For most young athletes and couch potatoes, though, sports drinks aren’t necessary. Water and low-fat milk should be the primary beverages for all children. Talk to your child’s doctor if you have any questions about your child’s activities and whether sports drinks are appropriate.