Sports drinks: not necessary for kids, but not necessarily evil

Studies have shown that kids will drink more if they're given fluid they like. Water is boring, and Gatorade, Powerade and AllSport come in all different colours and flavours.

The multi-billion-dollar sports drink industry was abuzz eight years ago with the launch of a new brand called "Spark," made specifically for young athletes.

Amid pictures of a young wrestler and gymnast, the company website boasted that the drink could help a child "develop fully as a high-performance athlete." The drink was actually an energy drink, with more caffeine in one serving than a cup of coffee.

It was marketed as a sports drink, however, and sparked a controversy among parents. Debate has raged over banning the sale of the products in schools, and sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade and AllSport Body Quencher have come to be considered by many to be "junk drinks."

The black mark on sports drinks is widespread. "I went into this profession thinking 'nobody except for endurance athletes should be drinking these drinks,'" says dietician Nicole Springle.

But she has since changed her mind. "Do they physiologically need it? No, but if it's going to help them drink a little bit more, and they're exercising and they're active, and their normal diet is pretty well-balanced, then they're not the evil that they're made out to be."

Studies have shown that kids will drink more if they're given fluid they like. Water is boring, and Gatorade, Powerade and AllSport come in all different colours and flavours.

When they are playing hard, most nutritionists agree that having kids drink more fluids is never a bad thing, even if the drinks themselves aren't any better — nutritionally speaking — than plain water.

"Essentially, [sports drinks are] not necessary," says dietician Erin Armitage, before adding: "If it's plain water, they may dehydrate more quickly, because they may not be as inclined to drink it."

So while they may not be evil, parents must still be aware of how much is too much when it comes to sports drinks.

Replacing lost sweat

Power-skating practices might be more intense than regular practices, while practices might be more intense than games. Parents must ensure the activity their young hockey players are doing is intense enough to warrant a drink containing calories, carbohydrates and sodium.

There is one good indicator that will determine how much fluid they need, and it isn't their age or even their level of play — it's sweat. Sports drinks are designed to replace what's lost in sweat, so parents should be aware of how much their child gives off.

"From child to child or player to player, how much they sweat is going to be different," says Armitage.

"Somebody who sweats more probably would benefit more from a sport drink than a child who doesn't sweat very much at all."

But how can parents tell? It's not as easy as it seems when Sidney Crosby appears in the Gatorade commercials, streaking towards the net while beads of visible, fluorescent sweat fall from his brow.

When it comes to measuring sweat, "Your gold standard is basically to take your weight before and after activity," says Springle.

For every kilogram lighter they are after they get off the ice, they have lost one litre of water, which must be replaced.

Water is the best way to replace that lost fluid. During practices, coaches should have water breaks, and bottles should be readily available. But if they aren't voluntarily drinking enough water behind the bench, parents could get a better result by giving them sports drinks.

"If [sports drinks] stimulate them to drink more, and will prevent dehydration, in that case they're a decent option," says Springle.

Parents tread a thin line

While sports drinks are an acceptable way to hydrate during games and practices, they aren't ideal for recovery.

"I go to rinks and you see all these kids running around with big Gatorade bottles, like a litre of Gatorade, and they're between practices," says Springle.

"In that time, that's where they should be drinking milk, chocolate milk, fruit juice."

She says that parents and coaches should teach kids that sports drinks are to be used only during activity. But parents must tread a thin line by getting the idea across that sports drinks can be used on the ice and not on the couch.

Even nutritionists from sports drink companies stress that the products cannot be used like water.

"Whether it's a sports drink, or you choose a cookie or a soft drink or a chocolate bar or chips, about 10 per cent of your calories can come from treats.

"So if you're not really in that level of working out at high intensity where you really need it, it's part of your treats," says Mary Bamford, a nutrition consultant for Powerade.

Since sports drinks have the advantage of also providing hydration, they are a viable option on the ice. Anywhere else, they are like pop or chips — a treat.  

No marketing to kids

These products stay away from marketing specifically to children. Gatorade (parent company Pepsi), and Powerade (Coca-Cola) are  members of the Canadian children's advertising initiative and do not advertise to anyone under age 12.

But they also don't discourage children from drinking sports drinks. Both companies offer generic responses to questions about minor hockey players.

"We do not market any of our products to children 12 and younger," says Coca-Cola public relations manager Kristy Payne in an email response, before adding: "Drinking a specially formulated drink like Powerade before, during and after physical exercise offers a convenient and efficient way to rehydrate the body."

While it may be convenient, it is also more expensive than water. In terms of strict hydration, parents aren't getting very much return on their investment for the money they are spending on sports drinks.

"Definitely from a hydration standpoint, if [kids] are open to drinking water, it's going to be just as good as having a sports drink," says Springle.

Parents looking to save money can entice their child to stay hydrated by making half-sports drinks and half-water solutions. They are still palatable to kids at half the cost.

Adding some salt to the solution will help replace salt lost in sweat, while making the kids thirsty and keeping them drinking.

But as a basic guideline, Springle thinks parents need to deliver a message to their kids. "I think the message that should be sent is that it's one thing to give it to them during exercise, to encourage them to drink, but they don't need it outside [of that]."