Drink Up

What began in a lab in the ’60s as a concoction formulated to rehydrate “wilting” Florida Gator athletes, Gatorade has grown into a $4.8 billion beverage business (sparking a slew of competitive brands, such as Powerade and Vitamin Water). But does your own Dirk Nowitzki-in-training really need to chug a bottle of “rehydration therapy” laced with sucralose or high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, salt and sodium citrate (we could go on), or will plain, old water do the trick?

We enlisted area professionals to help us weed out the hype from the hysteria as we queried: Do kids really need sports drinks?

According to Amy Goodson, sports dietitian for Ben Hogan Sports Medicine and the Dallas Cowboys, it depends. “Sports drinks are appropriate for children exercising longer than an hour, as they provide the sugar and salt needed to replace what’s being lost during exercise,” she explains. “Our bodies use glucose as energy during exercise, so long bouts of working out require us to replace the sugar being burned up as energy.” Also, Goodson says critical electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, are lost in sweat, so we need to replace the fluid, as well as the electrolytes.

It’s good news for your star basketball player’s post-workout Gatorade fix. But while he’s kicked back on the couch watching the Mavs play on TV? Not so much.

Plain water is the best drink for most athletes, but offering flavored water or an appropriate sports drink may encourage a young athlete to drink more, thus reducing his chances of dehydration, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, Dr. Stephen Slaughter, associate professor of biology at the University of Dallas, says parents should proceed with caution. “Check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain any type of additive that’s a stimulant,” he cautions. “Guarana is a caffeine-containing plant extract, so it might not always be obvious, but it will have the same effect on a kid as caffeine.”

Slaughter warns parents about getting caught up in the hoopla of electrolyte replacement for a peewee soccer player, saying it’s an unnecessary move for most kids. “I don’t think we need to introduce more sugar. And, in order to lose enough electrolytes to affect performance, [your child] would need to be doing 90 minutes of intense exercise,  working hard, sweating constantly, using a lot of energy,” stresses Slaughter.

Only in rare instances would a sports drink be appropriate, Slaughter argues. “Hydration for any active kid is important, but water does just fine,” he says.

Dr. Aimee Vafaie, board-certified pediatrician at Cook Children’s in Flower Mound, takes it one step further, advising families to stick to water as the primary source of hydration for children and adolescents, avoiding sports drinks altogether. “The marketing of sports drinks has us convinced we need these expensive, high-sugar solutions any time we exercise or sweat, and that’s just not true,” she advises. “Sports drinks are high sugar and high calorie and, unless children have been engaging in prolonged, vigorous activity, they just aren’t necessary.” As a pediatrician, Vafaie encourages her patients’ families to come to her for nutrition and exercise questions so she can help them make good choices.

The bottom line? Sports drinks are generally acceptable for an athlete whose body needs hydration along with electrolyte replacement, but that athlete is probably not your child. Before grabbing a brightly colored Gatorade, try reducing sugar and salt intake, as well as upping water consumption. It’s hot out there and staying hydrated is key to staying healthy.

Published April 2015