Hidden fat-maker in a 'healthy' drink

Researchers tracked 11,000 kids, ages nine to 15, for up to 7 years. They found that kids who drank a bottle of sports drink daily gained 3.5 pounds every two years. (AP Photo)

by Sari Harrar

As sugar-packed sodas gain a deservedly bad reputation for packing pounds on kids, sports drinks are emerging as a “healthier” alternative -- but for most kids they’re just empty calories in disguise, a new study says.  Yet they often turn up in school vending machines --  and use is rising especially in boys.

Opponents of sports drinks in schools call them “soda incognito”. Now, a Harvard Medical School study suggests they’re comparable or worse than soda in terms of weight gain in teens. The researchers tracked 11,000 kids, ages nine to 15, for up to 7 years. They found that kids who drank a bottle of sports drink daily gained 3.5 pounds every two years. "Sports drinks have an even stronger relationship than sugared sodas with weight gain," researcher Alison Field told the American Heart Association. "I was surprised by that. I would have expected the weight gain to be comparable."

In contrast, those who sipped one can of soda daily gained an extra 2 pounds in two years and those who drank 2 sodas a day gained 4 pounds.

Nearly one in five teens told a 2010 survey that they drink at least one sports drink daily and about one in ten sip two. In younger kids, ages 2 to 11, sports drink consumption increased six-fold between 1998 and 2008.

"Sports drinks go under the radar," Field explained. "The danger is that they're sold as being part of a healthy lifestyle, of being active. Unfortunately, kids don't get two hours of exercise a day, whereas if that were true, there wouldn't be a problem. Sports drinks also come in very large portions, and there's no line on the bottle that says, 'stop here.' They're simply not aware of how many calories are in a bottle."

One problem: Sports drinks are labeled at about 50 calories per serving -- so they look like a lower-calorie alternative. But a bottle contains multiple servings. So the real calorie count is more like 130 calories per 20-ounce bottle and 200 calories for a 32-ounce bottle. Compare that to the most common soda container -- the 12-ounce can -- which contains 120 calories.  Kids often drink the entire sports drink container at one time -- downing all the servings and all the calories, the researchers say.

Another problem: Even parents don’t see sports drinks as liquid candy -- which they are for many kids who aren’t involved in heavy-duty athletics. "We need to educate parents and clinicians about what constitutes a sugary drink," Field says. " Sports drinks are promoted by professional athletes as a healthy drink, but they really don't need to be used by kids unless they are continually exercising for long periods or they're in hot climates.”

What are the best drinks for kids? Some advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups:

Start with water, milk and some juice.“For most children engaging in routine physical activity, plain water is best,” says Holly J. Benjamin, MD, FAAP, co-author of a recent AAP report on sports drinks.  “Sports drinks contain extra calories that children don’t need, and could contribute to obesity and tooth decay. It’s better for children to drink water during and after exercise, and to have the recommended intake of juice and low-fat milk with meals. Sports drinks are not recommended as beverages to have with meals.”

See the empty carbs. More than one in four parents think sports drinks are healthy for all children (not just for student athletes), a Yale survey has found. But ounce for ounce, sports drinks actually contain 50 to 90 % of the calories found in soda.

Tell your teens that sports drinks are big business.  In 2010, Gatorade television ads were ranked among the top five most-advertised products seen by children and adolescents.  Powerade television ads were ranked twenty-sixth, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Sports drinks were a $7.5-billion industry in 2008. Drink makers appeal directly to teens via Facebook, Twitter and even a “mobile locker room” that tours the country, touting one brand’s performance-boosting power.

Reserve sports drinks for practices, games, work-outs and competitions lasting an hour or more. The carbohydrates, minerals and electrolytes in sports drinks do help replace water and electrolytes lost through sweating during exercise.  They can help out teens and preteens who are active for more than 60 minutes at a stretch, says the AAP and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly called the American Dietetic Association).

            The AND has these stay-hydrated tips for young athletes:

  • 1-2 hours before event or practice: Sip 12-22 ounces cool water or sport drink
  • 10-15 minutes before event: Sip another 10-20 ounces cool water or sport drink
  • During event or practice: Sip 4-6 ounces cool water or sport drink every 15 min
  • After event or practice: Sip 16-24 ounces (2-3 cups) cool fluids for every pound of weight lost  (Weighing your athlete before and after a tough practice seems a little extreme, but experts say it will show you both just how much fluid they’re using up.)
  • Watch for signs of dehydration like dark urine, less urine than usual, reduced sweating, muscle cramps, nausea and vomiting, clammy skin, a flushed face, dizziness, light-headedness and headaches.