It's pretty common to see kids chugging a Gatorade or other sports drink at a sporting event, but nutrition experts and pediatricians want to make sure people know there's a right time and a wrong time to consume them.
In a report published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers highlighted the differences between sugary, stimulant-containing energy drinks and sports drinks, which come with carbohydrates, electrolytes and other substances designed to hydrate and replenish elements lost through sweat. The report also offers guidance on when it's appropriate for kids to drink them.
"Caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents," wrote the authors, Drs. Marcie Schneider and Holly Benjamin of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Furthermore, frequent or excessive intake of caloric sports drinks can substantially increase the risk for overweight or obesity in children and adolescents."
"The biggest danger is probably the displacement of adequate sources of calcium and vitamin D in the diet," said Dr. Stephen Cook, assistant professor of pediatrics at Golisano Children's Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. "These beverages are replacing milk, especially the very crucial time of immense bone growth and development."
Instead, athletes should only drink beverages like Gatorade in combination with water after prolonged, vigorous activity when they need to quickly replenish electrolytes. If kids get thirsty before, during or after practice, they should drink water.
That's what Laurie Golden's kids often do. Her children, ages 19, 17 and 14, play a variety of sports throughout the year. Rather than reach for an energy drink, they choose a sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade, low-fat chocolate milk or water.
"My kids do not drink energy drinks like Red Bull or Monster," Golden said. "They have made that decision on their own, thinking that those kind of drinks don't help your sports performance or endurance at all but, instead, hinder it."
She worries about what the caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks may be doing to young people's bodies.
"I worry about increased heart rates, jitteriness, the ability of a child's body to process the additives and think consuming them is an unnecessary risk to take."
Experts say the stimulants in energy drinks can be especially dangerous during intense exercise.
"Using the energy drinks -- as opposed to sports drinks -- as an aid to exercise implies that consumption could occur when heart rate is elevated, raising the risk for heart failure," said Dr. Jana Klauer, a New York physician in private practice who specializes in nutrition.
The report's authors emphasize that kids should never consume sports drinks with meals or just because they are thirsty. Nutritional guidelines recommend that children drink no more than one 8 ounce sugary drink a day, even if they're very active.
Many kids drink several of these beverages a day because they're readily available.
"We commissioned an independent evaluation of school food and beverages in a group of California middle and high schools making efforts to improve school nutrition," said Dr. George Flores of the California Endowment, a nonprofit organization set up to improve access to quality health care. "It found that when sodas were removed from vending machines, vendors mainly replaced them with sports drinks."
Sports drinks are also heavily marketed to kids. The American Beverage Association says sports drinks can "provide nutrients and quickly replenish electrolytes and carbohydrates lost during physical activity or exposure to high temperatures." Some drink manufacturers also say their drinks contain amino acids that help promote muscle recovery.
But the report's authors say there's no science to back up some of these claims.
"Heavily marketed effects of specific amino acids in sports and energy drinks have not been supported by appropriate clinical trials," they wrote.
Golden and other moms say they hope people will get the message that these drinks are just as unhealthy as candy and soda.
Said mom and author Erika Katz: "You wouldn't hand your kid a lollipop for energy, and you wouldn't give them a can of soda for energy, so why would you give them a sport or energy drink that has the same amount of sugar as candy or soda?"