Energy & sport drinks: Does your child need them?

Elizabeth Strickland Sauls
Elizabeth Strickland Sauls

With summer right around the corner kids are gearing up for baseball, T-ball, soccer, football, tennis and sports camps.  When a child is playing any type of sport, parents are concerned about the best way to hydrate their child and improve their performance.  Proper hydration is important.  It can enhance focus, stamina, reaction time and give your child a competitive edge on the field.  If your child is not properly hydrated it can lead to muscle cramps, joint pain, fatigue, headaches, slow reaction time and decreased concentration.  This is a concern especially here in Texas with summer temperatures reaching over 100°F!

When it comes to hydrating kids with fluids there is a confusing array of choices.  Energy and sports drinks have become very popular and are now seen at every sporting event from pee-wee soccer to triathlons.  But does your child really need this stuff?  Let’s take a look at what may be best for your child.

Energy drinkssuch as Red Bull, Full Throttle, Monster Energy and Rockstar are not designed to hydrate the body and should never be consumed by young children and teenagers.  Energy drinks are mostly caffeine, water and sugar; containing at least 80 - 110mg of caffeine per 8-ounce serving.  Energy drinks may also contain additional amounts of caffeine through additives such as guarana, kola nut, yerba mate and cocoa.  Manufacturers are not required to list the caffeine content from these ingredients.  So, the total amount of actual caffeine may exceed 500mg, which is not listed on the product label.   

Children and teens should not consume more than 100mg of caffeine per day which can easily be exceeded from consuming one energy drink.  High levels of caffeine can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting, agitation, jitteriness, racing heart, increased anxiety, inattentiveness, decreased reaction time, increase blood pressure and interfere with calcium absorption.  High levels of caffeine are especially a concern for children on stimulant medication for ADHD, which may also increase their heart rate.   The American Academy of Pediatrics warns of the health risk regarding stimulant containing energy drinks and report they have no place in the diets of children or teens.  It is important for parents to educate their children on the potential health risk and that energy drinks are off limits!   

Sports drinkssuch as Gatorade and Powerade are mostly water, carbohydrate (sugar) and electrolytes (sodium and potassium).  The purpose of the carbohydrate is to provide an immediate source of energy and the electrolytes are needed for muscles to work properly.  To avoid fatigue and maintain performance; sports drinks may be helpful for high-level athletes who participate in prolonged vigorous physical activity lasting longer than one hour.  For these athletes start with water, after the first hour of intense physical activity and sweating you may switch to a sports drink. 

For the average child, teen or casual athlete participating in less intense physical activity a sports drink is not necessary and will not enhance performance.  Water is the most appropriate choice for hydration.      

Many kids today are drinking sports drinks even when they are not active; while sitting in the stands watching a ball game, playing video games or drink them like water throughout the day.  Is this a problem?  You bet it is.  A salty, sugary sports drink loaded with artificial colors is not healthy for kids.  A 20- ounce sports drink may contain 35 grams of sugar (8 teaspoons of sugar).  Given the high rate of overweight and obesity in children today I recommend avoiding high-calorie sports drinks and drink water instead.  Another problem to consider is the artificial colors added to sports drinks.  Research indicates that some children are sensitive to artificial colors aggravating their ADD and ADHD symptoms.        

Energy drinks are a NO for children and teens.  Sports drinks are a YES for the high-level athlete, NOT NECESSARY for the rest of us, and are OK to drink occasionally.  Water is generally the best choice for hydration before, during and after physical activity.

Elizabeth Strickland Sauls is a registered dietitian specializing in integrative Nutrition Therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and related disorders.  She is the author of the book, “Eating for Autism … The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Autism, Asperger’s or ADHD.” She’s a mom of three grown children and resides in Glen Rose with her husband Keith Sauls.