This commentary has a very simple bottom line: Children shouldn't drink sports drinks and energy drinks.
That was the message of a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in the June 2011 issue of Pediatrics. It's a message that makes huge sense.
Yet these products are marketed to children and adolescents. The ads for sports drinks suggest that they are necessary for the best athletic performance and for replacing fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat. Energy drink ads include the message that they boost energy, decrease fatigue, and improve concentration and mental alertness.
The terms "sports drink" and "energy drink" are often used in place of each other. But they are different types of beverages.
The biggest concern about sports drinks is that they are contributing to the obesity epidemic. When we drink our calories, the body doesn't get the usual cues from chewing and swallowing food that it's had enough. We end up taking in many more calories than we need.
The ads for these drinks would have us believe that we need them whenever we exercise to replace what we lose in sweat and to maintain energy. This is not true.
Sports drinks can be useful during prolonged vigorous exercise, such as a soccer tournament where a child plays several games in a row, or a track meet that goes on for a few hours where a child competes in several events. But for the average soccer game or baseball game, in fact for the vast majority of types of exercise kids engage in, water is all they need — and all they should have.
The AAP uses very strong wording when it comes to energy drinks: "They are not appropriate for children and adolescents and should never be consumed."
Some of these drinks can have as much caffeine as several cups of coffee. The AAP and pediatricians believe that caffeine is never appropriate for children. It can cause heart rhythm problems, stomach problems, anxiety and even seizures.
Even if you don't find caffeine in the ingredient list, assume that anything marketed as an energy drink contains a stimulant. These drinks can have other stimulants, such as guarana and taurine, that can be dangerous for children.
Sports and energy drinks both have citric acid, which can erode teeth enamel.
Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing understanding that sodas aren't healthy. So the companies that make sports drinks and energy drinks market them as a healthier alternative to soda. And indeed, they have slightly less sugar. But they aren't healthy — and they are absolutely not necessary for hydration during exercise or peak performance.
So when you are packing your child's sports bag, pack a water bottle (preferably a reusable one and not a plastic one — think of the environment!). You could also pack some light healthy snacks, like orange slices, grapes or whole wheat crackers. But skip the sports drinks—and don't even think about the energy drinks. Water is all they need.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.