Sugar Shock: Sports Drink Consumption on the Rise

With the recent bans on sodas and other sugary drinks in schools, more teens are now reaching for what might look like a better alternative—sports drinks. But that image is a bit of an illusion. Many experts think parents should be warned that sports drinks, with their claims to replenish fluids, electrolytes and to recharge energy, should be taken with a grain of salt, or should we say, sugar.

Lots of calories and sugar

According to a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than half of U.S. high school students consume a sports drink at least once a week. The proportion of teens who reported having sports drinks at least once in the previous week rose from 56 percent in 2010 to almost 58 percent in 2015; while the difference seems slight, it’s a bit alarming to health professionals who are warning parents to avoid buying drinks with lots of calories and sugar for their children.

“In the last five years or so, there’s been more awareness around sugar-sweetened beverages. It’s becoming common knowledge that those empty calories can predispose a child to greater weight gain,” said Dr. Megan Pesch, developmental and behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

The average sports drink on the market can contain around 56 grams of sugar per 32 ounces; that’s twice the daily recommended amount for an adult.

Marketing to teens

Dr. Pesch believes advertisers and marketers for these beverages also hold some responsibility in making the drinks a more prevalent choice for teens. Marketing campaigns around these types of beverages, often targeted directly at teens, have led to the belief that the drinks are ‘healthy’ or necessary to replenish electrolytes after activity. But Dr. Pesch says that’s an assumption that needs to be challenged.

“The marketing on these drinks can be so pervasive. The athletes who endorse the product are beautiful, powerful winners, so who wouldn’t want to be one step closer to that. Combining that with sports, makes it look like a healthy option, so it’s quite deceptive in that way,” Dr. Pesch explains, “I think a sports drink is really only useful in very extreme elite athletes, exerting themselves at high levels – such as ultra marathon runners or Olympic athletes. They’re not useful for an hour long soccer practice, even a hot football practice. In those situations, it doesn’t give any sort of edge over water, and the beverage is full of empty calories.”

Comparing nutrition labels

Dr. Pesch thinks that parents can help educate their teens by comparing the sugar content on the nutrition labels on sports drinks to that of a soda or juice, to make teens aware of the amount of sugar in their favorite sports beverages.

“I think it should be the next wave in the decrease of sugar-sweetened beverages. Five years ago kids would have a soda with lunch, so we’re headed in the right direction. Once we learn about the amount of sugar that’s really contained in some of these drinks, we all make better decisions,” she said.