Should kids drink Gatorade and other sports drinks? Find out the facts!
I walked out of the grocery store the other day holding something unexpected on my shoulder: A case of brightly colored bottles of Gatorade.
Why unexpected? For years, I lobbied to replace sports drinks with water on our local pee-wee soccer fields and helped other parents do the same in their communities. (Get my free Sports Snack Handbook if you want to help change sports snack culture on your child’s team.)
Because pee-wee players trotting around a field for 30 minutes don’t need Gatorade. Tennis players competing in a multi-hour tournament on a hot day? That’s another story.
What are sports drinks?
Sports drinks like Gatorade were created for elite and endurance athletes, to deliver a combo of quick hydration and carb and electrolyte replacement during exercise. The main ingredients in sports drinks are:
- Water: To prevent dehydration
- Carbohydrate in some form of added sugar: To give energy to muscles during exercise, keep blood sugar levels stable, and make it taste good
- Electrolytes like sodium and potassium: To replace minerals lost through sweat (sodium also enhances the flavor)
Is Gatorade an energy drink?
Though they are sometimes confused by consumers, sports drinks are NOT the same as energy drinks. Energy drinks usually pack caffeine and other stimulants and aren’t appropriate for kids.
Most kids don’t need sports drinks
They may have been designed for elite athletes, but sports drinks show up at all levels and intensities of sports, including pee-wee games. And most kids simply don’t need them. What they need instead: Plain water.
In their 2011 clinical report about sports drinks and energy drinks, the American Academy of Pediatrics says:
“Water is also generally the appropriate first choice for hydration before, during, and after most exercise regimens…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.”
American Academy of Pediatrics
Electrolytes aren’t hard to get
Electrolytes aren’t special, proprietary ingredients found only in sports drinks. Sodium and potassium, which can be lost through sweat, are easily replaced through food for most kids.
Meals and snacks such as a banana, half a sandwich, crackers and cheese, or yogurt and fruit can restock lost sodium and potassium AND provide nutrients like protein.
Marketing is misleading
Sports and energy drinks are being marketed to children and adolescents “for a wide variety of inappropriate uses”, warns the AAP.
This marketing has misled some parents into believing that sports drinks are necessary for any kind of sporting event, like pee-wee soccer games or t-ball games that involve more sitting and waiting than running and sweating.
I’ve also heard parents say kids need them if they’re doing any sport in warm weather or simply playing in the backyard and sweating.
Truth is, many kids in sports aren’t exercising as intensely as parents may think they are. More than half of youth sport time is spent either in sedentary or light-intensity activity, according to research from the University of Minnesota.
Sports drinks have a health halo
In one research study from Yale University, more than a quarter of parents rate sports drinks as “somewhat healthy” or “very healthy”. There’s a belief that sports drinks are better for kids than other sweetened drinks.
But a 12-ounce bottle of Gatorade still contains more than five teaspoons of added sugar (that’s close to the amount the American Heart Association recommends for a whole day). Sweetened beverages like soda and sports drinks are the number-one source of added sugar for kids and teens.
Here are the ingredients in a bottle of Gatorade Fruit Punch: WATER, SUGAR, DEXTROSE, CITRIC ACID, SALT, SODIUM CITRATE, MONOPOTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, NATURAL FLAVOR, GLYCEROL ESTER OF ROSIN, RED 40, CARAMEL COLOR.
In other words:
- Two kinds of added sugar
- Citric acid, which can wear away tooth enamel
- Synthetic food dye
- Emulsifiers and stabilizers
- Sodium and potassium that kids can get by eating food
These are all approved and safe ingredients. But for most kids, plain water is simply the better choice.
Sports drinks can be bad for teeth
They may not be fizzy, but sports drinks are acidic like soda. Most sports drinks have an acidic pH of 3–4 (citric acid that’s added can erode tooth enamel). The sugars and acids in sports drinks also up the risk of cavities.
When ARE sports drinks helpful?
I bought that case of Gatorade because my son’s team was playing a multi-hour tennis tournament in hot weather. Tennis is a vigorous sport, and the kids were playing multiple matches in full sun and heat. Providing small bottles of Gatorade as an option made sense to me.
If kids are exercising or playing sports intensely for more than 60 minutes and need to replenish quickly during the activity, sports drinks can be helpful. It’s much easier (and gentler on the tummy) to take a few gulps of sports drink during a quick break between matches than to sit down and eat a snack.
Sports drinks are also useful for endurance athletes like marathon runners who need to restock on the go.
But for garden-variety practices and games, having your child eat a healthy snack or meal afterwards will do the trick. Get my list of 21 Nutritious Sports Snacks for Kids.
How to talk to kids about sports drinks
Yes, sports drinks have a place. But there are a lot of marketing dollars being spent promoting a drink to people who don’t need it, including kids and teens.
So be sure your kids understand that sports drinks won’t magically make them faster on the soccer field or better able to catch passes in flag football, regardless of what they see in online ads and commercials–and that unless they’re playing sports for a long time, especially in hot weather, plain water is perfect.
Make your own sports drink for kids
Yes, you can make your own homemade electrolyte drink! And it has way fewer ingredients than the store-bought stuff. Here’s an easy recipe from dietitian Jill Castle.