A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
Beverage Bonanza: Making the right choice for your young athlete
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN
If I could wave my magic dietitian wand and cast a spell, making all young athletes drink a magic potion to help them perform at their peak, I would. But what would that magic potion be? Ideally, water first, then a sports drink during an extended exercise session.
When athletes are not exercising, I’d want them to drink water, three servings of milk or a nondairy alternative like soymilk each day, and maybe a small amount of 100% juice. No soda, no energy drinks, and no sugary juices.
However, I am not Glenda the Good Witch, nor do I have the ability to make each athlete drink the healthiest beverages on the planet. And the reality is, sugary drinks are going to slip in here and there. Nevertheless, you do have enormous influence in keeping your athlete’s drink choices healthy and effective.
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), children and teens consume a significant amount of calories per day from beverages including milk, regular soda, energy and sports drinks, fruit drinks, and 100% fruit juice. Children consume more milk and 100% fruit juice (that’s good), and teens consume more soda (that’s bad). Unfortunately, we see more and more of the teen drinking trends infiltrating athletic fields and courts, chipping away at the health quality of the young athlete’s diet.
If given free reign, children and teens tend to choose food and beverages based on their taste preferences. However, they may not understand that relying on tasty drinks can backfire, resulting in poor nutrient intake, unneeded calories, and even potentially dangerous substances. Don’t be fooled into thinking your young athlete is making good decisions about what to drink. I see plenty of athletes drinking soda, giant bottles of juice, and—worse—energy shots.
How do you reduce your young athletes’ intake of sugary drinks and other undesirable beverages? Let’s look at the options young athletes have and investigate their pros and cons so that you can advise them on the best options.
Our bodies are made up of many cells, and those cells are filled with water. So common sense would tell us that drinking water is essential—and it is. Plain water should be the mainstay of an athlete’s fluid diet—on and off the court, all day, and every day. Plain old water trumps juice boxes and sports drinks for the under-13 crowd, because games and practices for that age group are typically under an hour. In fact, water is the best fluid to use while exercising for less than 1 hour and may be totally fine in longer exercise sessions for some athletes. Water is absorbed easily, tolerated well, and portable. Cool or cold water is most acceptable, so lug along the cooler or ice-down the water bottle.
On today’s sports scene, you’ll also find “enhanced” and “fitness” -waters like those from Propel, VitaminWater, or SmartWater. These may contain anything from added antioxidants and vitamins to natural and artificial flavors and sugars. In general, they don’t provide enough carbohydrate for the exercising athlete, so athletes shouldn’t use them during long sessions (over an hour). While they are okay for a short workout and the flavored versions may be better accepted taste-wise, buyer beware—those extra vitamins and antioxidants aren’t scientifically proven to enhance anything, except maybe the hole in your wallet.
Another category of water is marketed as “premium hydration.” These waters and beverages—products such as alkaline waters, electrolyte--enhanced waters and beverages, naturally functional products such as coffee- and fruit-based drinks, and any number of coconut waters—promise natural refreshment, improved function, and a tasty alternative to plain water. The problem is that premium water comes at a premium price but with no proof of premium performance.
Sports drinks were designed to ward off fatigue and prevent athletes from becoming dehydrated. Yet many Americans, young and old, use them, whether they are athletes or not. Traditional sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade offer carbohydrate as an energy source, and sodium, potassium, and chloride to help replenish the loss of electrolytes in sweat.
One unique element of sports drinks is the carbohydrate source. Various sugars, such as fructose, sucrose, and dextrose, are included, so muscles can use different carbohydrate absorption pathways, promoting the best muscular performance. You won’t find this unique benefit in fruit juices or soda. The total amount of carbohydrate in sports drinks ranges from 14 to 19 grams in a 1-cup (237 mL) serving size. Young athletes using sports drinks containing higher amounts (16–18 g) of carbohydrate have been shown to experience stomach cramps, so a lower total sugar content may be better tolerated.
Newer sports-drink products (for example, Powerade + B vitamins) offer B vitamins and claim to enhance performance, although there is no convincing evidence of this. Unless a vitamin B deficiency exists, which is rare, the B vitamins in these sports drinks simply end up in the toilets of most athletes.
The most important thing to remember is that sports drinks are appropriate only for child and teen athletes exercising in hot weather, participating in exercise lasting longer than an hour, or engaging in multiple exercise sessions per day. Sports drinks are popular among all kids and teens, and their “health halo”—the idea that they are healthy—is part of the reason. More than a quarter of parents (27%) believe sports drinks are healthy beverages for their children. As a result, the overall consumption of sports drinks is increasing. One study of children aged 6 to 11 years showed a sixfold increase (from 2% to 12%) in consumption rates from 1989 to 2008, while total amounts consumed also increased from about 8 ounces (237 mL) per day to almost 10 ounces (296 mL) per day.
One of the side effects of overusing sports drinks is extra weight gain. In a 2012 study, children and teens aged 9 to 15 saw an average weight gain of 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg) per year (or a 0.3 increase in body mass index [BMI]) for every bottle of sports drink they drank each day, compared with the weight gain (2 pounds [0.9 kg]) associated with a can of regular soda.28 According to lead researcher Allison Field of Harvard University, “Sports drinks have an even stronger relationship to weight gain than regular sugary sodas.” In other words, relying on sports drinks as the main hydration source when not needed may cause just as much weight gain as regular soda—if not more.
Adding to the confusion, sports drinks provide multiple servings in one bottle, something that is easy to miss. Even the smallest bottles have one and a half servings. Parents may look at the label, read “50 calories,” and assume that is the calorie content of the whole bottle. A 32-ounce (948 mL) bottle has a total of 200 calories (four servings); to burn this off, a young athlete would need to run 2 miles (3.2 km) or exercise for a half hour or so on the court with intensity and consistency (time on the bench or waiting between running drills doesn’t count).
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN. Kids have their own nutritional needs - especially athletic kids. Yet most young athletes aren't eating properly to compete. Eat Like a Champion will help their parents tailor diets for training, competition, and even off-season. Buy Eat Like a Champion on Amazon: http://amzn.com/0814436226
Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle
Helping children learn life lessons through failure and disappointment that everyone experiences while competing is an important role for coaches and parents to handle. Are you ready for it?
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