Kids sports drinks: Everything you need to know

Introduction

As parents and coaches we all want what is best for our children and we want to make sure our children stay hydrated. Sports drinks are everywhere and my own kids ask for them frequently, and I often see their friends drinking them too. However, do our kids need these drinks? In this post we will cover everything you need to know about sports drinks for kids including what they are, what to look for on their nutrition label, when they can be beneficial, what to avoid, any risks, and how to choose the right drink for your child. 

What Are Sports Drinks?

According to the merriam webster dictionary, sports drinks are “a drink that consists mainly of water, electrolytes (such as sodium or potassium), and carbohydrates (such as sucrose or fructose) and that is designed to replenish those substances in the body during or after usually strenuous exercise.” Some sports drinks have other ingredients added such as added vitamins and/or caffeine. It is important to differentiate between sports drinks, vitamin drinks and energy drinks as these terms are often used interchangeably. The sports drinks discussed in this post do not contain caffeine, and are not energy drinks. 

Ingredient Breakdown

Water

The easiest way to define water is that it is the simplest form of hydration. Water will not provide any calories or carbohydrates. While tap water naturally contains some electrolytes, it does not contain enough for athletes that would benefit from a sports drink

Electrolytes

Simply put, electrolytes affect many functions in the body.The electrolytes sodium and chloride (salt) are the main electrolytes lost through sweat. However, some potassium, calcium and magnesium are lost through sweat too. In addition to being found in sports drinks, electrolytes can be found in foods. Below are some examples.  

Sodium and chloride (NaCl = salt) sources in food: 

  1. Salted pretzels
  2. Salted crackers 
  3. Salted nuts

Potassium sources in food:

  1. Bananas
  2. Raisins
  3. Oranges 

Magnesium sources in food:

  1. Cashews
  2. Bananas 
  3. Peanut butter 

Calcium sources in food:

  1. Milk
  2. Yogurt
  3. Cheese 

Carbohydrates 

Carbohydrates provide an energy source to the muscles and the brain. They are found in many sports drinks, and they are also found in pasta, rice, apples, bananas, raisins, bread, oatmeal, graham crackers, pretzels, chocolate milk, yogurt and cereal. When we eat carbohydrates, our bodies break them down into glucose. 

Do Kids Need Sports Drinks?

Sports drinks are used by athletes and non athletes alike. For the non athlete, unless recommended by a medical professional for a medical reason, sports drinks are not needed. If your child is an athlete, it depends! For many youth athletes, water is enough to meet hydration needs. However, for the youth athlete participating in physical activity lasting more than an hour, or for the youth athlete participating in rigorous activity in humid climates sports drinks can help. This does not mean that every player that is participating in a 60 minute soccer game will need a sports drink. Many youth athletes are not necessarily “playing” for a full hour. For those that a sports drink will be beneficial for, not only will they help maintain hydration levels with the electrolytes, but the carbohydrates in sports drinks can provide a quick energy source too. 

 Sports Drinks are Beneficial for

  • Youth athletes participating in sports lasting more than one hour.
  • Athletes playing in tournaments or playing multiple sports per day.
  • Those playing in very hot/humid environments. 
  • Salty sweaters, as they will help to replace the electrolytes lost through sweat.
  • Student athletes that don’t have time to have a snack between school lunch and afterschool practice or games. These student athletes can benefit from sports drinks before they play because sports drinks will give their bodies carbohydrates for quick energy.

What to Look for on the Nutrition Facts Label of Sports Drinks? 

Kids often choose sports drinks because they see professional athletes drinking them, they see their friends drinking them and they see them marketed towards them on TV. Sports drinks however are not created equally! 

I am going to test your sports nutrition knowledge. Read the sentence:

 “some sports drinks are very low in calories and carbohydrates and contains 0 grams of sugar” 

After reading this sentence, do you think

  1. Wow, great! My child is rehydrating but is not getting a lot of calories or sugar from their sports drink.
  2. Oh no! Their sports drink is not giving them quick energy through carbohydrates to refuel them! 

Sports drinks should be used for the purpose of rehydrating and refueling. Therefore the answer is B! Without adequate carbohydrates, the youth athlete will not be adequately refueled. An athlete that would benefit from a sports drink could benefit the same from water and a snack. However, most youth athletes that I work with are not able to sit and have a snack during their sports and it’s easier to sip a sports drink. 

The Label

Simply stated when choosing a sports drink look for calories, carbohydrates and electrolytes. When looking at a 12 oz serving:

  • Carbohydrates: ~20-25 grams per 12 oz serving  
  • Calories: ~ 80-100 calories per 12 oz serving 
  • Electrolytes: Look for sodium and potassium on the label  

(remember that this is for a 12 oz serving, numbers will look different if the bottle is bigger or smaller)

I always recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners and food dyes as able. However, this is often easier said than done if your child is picky and has specific preferences. If your child’s activity level would benefit from a sports drink and their choice contains these ingredients, then yes, give them their drink of choice. Another ingredient to be careful of is sugar alcohols (end in -ol) as these can lead to gastrointestinal distress.  

Conclusion 

Research has shown that many youth athletes are dehydrated before even beginning to play their sport. Encourage your child to drink water and eat hydrating foods throughout the day to avoid starting dehydrated.  When deciding if your child needs a sports drink look at how long they are engaging in sports for and look at the weather conditions. For more help on providing your child with a hydration plan, schedule a 1:1 consult with me, or schedule a team nutrition meeting with me

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