Sports drinks. Energy drinks. Electrolyte solutions. Carbonated drinks. Milk. What is healthy, what is not?
Young children and adolescents participating in non-competitive play do not benefit from the wide variety of beverages that are heavily marketed as means to prevent dehydration and improve performance. In fact, some of these beverages are counterproductive at times. Yes, even milk.
Here is what you should know:
1. Plain water suffices to quench thirst. Water is all children and adolescents need, even when playing for prolonged periods in moderately hot weather. When the weather becomes too hot/humid play should be curtailed rather than relying on fluids to prevent heat-related issues. Drinking ice cold water is OK at all ages and at all times.
Water intoxication, drinking too much water, is increasingly in the news, but almost never affects children. It occurs mostly in competitive athletes participating in strenuous sports. When they perspire profusely, they lose large amounts of water and electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and chloride, for example) through their skin. Intoxication occurs when they subsequently drink large quantities of water without replacing the electrolytes.
2. Older children believe that drinking sports/energy drinks is macho. Professional athletes drink them. Watch the sidelines at sporting events. Prominently displayed are large containers of such drinks, often Gatorade – and players drinking it. Advertisements imply that these drinks boost athletic performance. In fact, they restore balance once a child/adult is dehydrated. There is no compelling evidence that these drinks improve athletic abilities.
3. Sports drinks and energy drinks are alike in some (but not all) ways. Both are flavored beverages containing electrolytes in specific concentrations to prevent/treat dehydration. The drinks are high in carbohydrates/calories and when consumed in large quantities over long periods are associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, dental decay, and other conditions.
4. Energy drinks are sports drinks containing stimulants. The most commonly used stimulant is caffeine. Many energy drinks contain about three times the caffeine in cola drinks. Some contain even more caffeine from the addition of caffeine containing plants. By claiming that the drinks are nutritional supplements, manufacturers circumvent the requirement to list contents and the limits imposed on the amount caffeine in sodas and restrictions on sales to minors. Energy drinks have no therapeutic benefits in children/adolescents.
5. Caffeine has numerous side effects. In children/adolescents, caffeine may cause sleep disturbances and heart irregularities and are especially troublesome in children taking other medications or having underlying conditions such as attention deficit issues, anxiety, or seizure disorders.
6. There are no known adverse effects from the carbonation in carbonated beverages. So says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the data comes from studies done in adults and the FDA does not mention children specifically. The acidity from carbonation is quickly neutralized by saliva in the mouth and diluted by the far greater acidity in the stomach. Theoretical effects of the acidity on removing calcium from bones and enamel from teeth have not been substantiated. Some dentists suggest drinking carbonated drinks with a straw to bypass the teeth. The problem with carbonated drinks is the other ingredients that they contain.
7. Sugar-sweetened beverages, especially cola drinks, have no place as frequent drinks for young children. They contain zero nutrients and lots of calories, causing unnecessary weight gains while suppressing children’s appetite for more nutritious foods. In extreme (and rare) cases, this leads to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and tooth decay. The earlier in life children begin to drink sugar-containing beverages, the more likely and more severe these effects tend to be.
8. Artificially sweetened soft drinks have limited health benefits. Anti-obesity campaigns have convinced many parents who give soft drinks to their children to switch from sugar-sweetened to diet drinks; consumption of diet drinks by children has doubled in recent years. These sweeteners – aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, for example – are regulated by the FDA and believed to be safe at all ages. But nutritionists worry that these sweeteners have not been sufficiently studied regarding long-term use by children, and that they may actually increase cravings for sugar and cause children to overcompensate with high calorie foods.
9. Drinking too much milk is a leading cause of iron deficiency and dental decay in young children. Milk is a sugary beverage. Some toddlers drink lots of it and, worse, drink it from a bottle, keeping the milk/bottle in their mouth for prolonged periods, sometimes hours. Cows’ milk contains little iron. Moreover cows’ milk may prevent iron from other foods from being properly absorbed into the body. For thirsty toddlers, water is preferable.
10. Different electrolyte solutions are formulated for adults and young children. Those for adults are designed to replace water and electrolytes lost by excessive perspiration. Electrolyte solutions for children replace the water and electrolytes lost in vomiting and diarrhea; the two types differ in composition. Solutions for adult are high in sugar; athletes need calories to maintain stamina. Children need smaller amounts of sugar. And too much sugar may worsen diarrhea. However, if your child needs an electrolyte solution and only adult solutions are available, use them until you can get ones especially formulated for children.