I’m not sure how stocking the fridge with sports drinks became a regular part of our family’s grocery routine, but ever since my son Connor started playing rep hockey and competing in motocross, we’ve had them in the house. I decided to do some digging on whether they were necessary for active kids — or just a treat.
The flavoured beverages we buy are available in a rainbow of colours and are a fixture on sports fields and at the rink. They’re classified as “sports recovery” drinks, containing protein, carbohydrates, minerals, electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium) and vitamins, and are marketed as the ideal way to hydrate during and after physical activity. Another beverage included under the umbrella of sports drinks is the “sports energy” drink; while some contain carbs, the big difference is the inclusion of stimulants, like caffeine or guarana, on their ingredient list. It turns out, there are studies that suggest that both types of drinks can have detrimental effects on kids.
According to personal trainer and nutritionist Bruce Krahn of Mississauga, Ont., the average kid who plays recreational sports (even at the rep level) doesn’t need sports drinks. Water is still the ideal form of hydration and is also necessary for maintaining normal cardiovascular function.
“The biggest concern is that many sports energy drinks contain caffeine — and caffeine is a powerful drug,” Krahn explains. “Kids have very small bodies, and they’re sensitive to stimulants of any kind.”
Read more: Caffeine and kids >
Alan Logan, a New York-based naturopathic doctor, says sleep issues are another big issue. “One sports energy beverage can be the equivalent of a strong home-brewed cup of coffee. Kids are coming home wired after a game and their parents wonder why they’re not falling asleep.”
Rennay McLean, a mom of two in Calgary, doesn’t offer any of these drinks to her kids, even though both of them are heavily into sports. “The drinks have a lot of sugar and sodium,” she says. “We’d sooner give them chocolate milk for a boost of sugar and protein after they’ve worked hard.”
The concept of sports drinks not being a healthy choice can be confusing for kids, especially when they see their athletic heroes drinking them in advertisements. It puts parents in a tough position, too, when other moms and dads, or coaches, hand them out to players.
“We’ve explained to our kids that the decisions other parents make for their kids are not necessarily the ones we make for ours,” says McLean. “Once in a while, we’ll let them have one, but if they were given out after every game, we’d politely decline, just as we say no at the vending machines when we’re leaving the arena.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report in 2011 indicating that these drinks are not necessary for any kids, because they increase caloric intake without adding nutritional value, and up the risk of dental erosion.
However, some experts believe there are circumstances when sports recovery drinks are OK, specifically when there’s an acute loss of electrolytes and fluids with high levels of activity (like training for professional sports, or playing at high frequency or in extreme heat), or when fluids may need to be replenished faster for muscle recovery. But these types of athletes generally work with trainers and follow a carefully planned nutrition program.
What did I decide? The best thing I can do for my little sports star is to give him well-balanced meals, including lean protein and healthy snacks. And now, when we’re tempted to hit the vending machine, we’re more likely to look for the closest water fountain instead.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2013 issue with the headline "Sports drink debate", p. 82.