Is it safe for children to drink sports beverages regularly, even when they're not exercising strenuously?

Originally Published: September 5, 2003
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Dear Alice,

A lot of children are drinking sports drinks on a regular basis (and are not exercising strenuously). Is this a safe practice?? I worry about the sodium and other electrolytes in these drinks.

Thanks

Dear Reader,

You bring up a good point. The main idea behind sports beverages is to help keep people hydrated and supplied with energy throughout extended bouts of exercise. These concoctions contain carbohydrate, sodium, potassium, and occasionally other substances. The carbohydrate in these drinks provides energy, especially when the athlete has used up much of his or her glycogen (stored carbohydrates). The sodium increases the exerciser's "drive to drink," helping him or her to take in adequate amounts of fluid. Since people lose some electrolytes (e.g., sodium and potassium) from sweating during physical activity, including them in a sports drink makes sense.

Do children need this stuff? Certainly not if they're sitting around watching TV or playing computer games. Sports beverages contain calories — usually about 60 to 75 per 8 oz. serving (in comparison, soda pop has 100 calories per 8 oz. portion). These calories add up significantly if kids are drinking a lot of this stuff. Many of these fluid replacement drinks come in bottles of 20 and 32 oz. sizes, which will total 150 - 300 calories if the entire bottle is consumed. The added sugars in sports beverages are unnecessary for children. If they're playing leisurely, many would fare better by drinking water or unsweetened flavored seltzers. Plus, it would be better for their teeth. For those kids who may need the extra calories, however, 100 percent juice is a much better option. [So is milk, but as many parents know, this can be a tough sell (although chocolate milk can sometimes win over kids)!].

In addition, most children don't really need the extra sodium these beverages provide, which can be as high as 50 - 110 mg per 8 oz serving. This ingredient can add up significantly as well, and certainly isn't necessary in light of the high sodium content of many snack foods kids eat.

The potassium found in sports drinks is too small to be of concern. A typical sports beverage has only 20 percent of the potassium found in one glass of orange juice. Some sports beverages are fortified with additional vitamins. Since numerous products have added vitamins and minerals, it's highly possible to take in dangerous levels of some of these nutrients. Read food and beverage labels carefully to see what may have been added to them.

For children, limiting or eliminating sports drinks and replacing them with water and/or unsweetened flavored seltzers is a good idea, given the reasons above and the amount of excess empty calories many of them already take in these days.

Alice