Why your child athlete doesn't need Gatorade

Children play soccer at a Clyde Park District park in Cicero in this 2010 photo. (Chicago Tribune file photo)

Q: Which is better for my child athlete: A sports drink or an energy drink?

A: Neither. Kids shouldn’t consume energy drinks – which often contain caffeine -- and as I wrote two years ago, most don’t need sports drinks, according to a clinical report published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Nevertheless, the drinks are increasingly (and inappropriately) marketed to children and adolescents and sales of sports and energy drinks in schools are increasing, the report found.

One danger is that sports drinks and energy drinks are vastly different products, but many people erroneously use the terms interchangeably,  the study authors said. Sports drinks such as Gatorade or Powerade are flavored beverages that contain carbohydrates, minerals, electrolytes and sweeteners.

They’re intended to replace water and electrolytes lost through sweating during exercise. The drinks can help if an athlete is exercising vigorously for more than an hour or if competing in a tournament on a hot, humid day, but in most cases they’re unnecessary on the sports field or the school lunchroom, said study coauthor, Dr. Holly Benjamin, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.

Energy drinks, meanwhile, contain substances not found in sports drinks that act as stimulants, such as caffeine, guarana and taurine. Caffeine – by far the most popular stimulant – has been linked to a number of harmful health effects in children, including effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems. They’re never appropriate for children or adolescents, in part because it can be hard to tell how much caffeine a product has by looking at the label.

“Some cans or bottles of energy drinks can have more than 500 mg of caffeine, which is the equivalent of 14 cans of soda,” said study coauthor Dr. Marcie Beth Schneider, a member of the AAP’s Committee on Nutrition.

The bottom line for kids? They should avoid energy drinks and drink good, old fashioned water during and after exercise. “Sports drinks contain extra calories that children don’t need, and could contribute to obesity and tooth decay," said Benjamin, a member of the executive committee of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “Sports drinks are not recommended as beverages to have with meals.”