Soda has become public enemy number one in the childhood obesity epidemic, but what about other sweet sippers? Are kids mistakenly subbing their fizzy beverages for just-as-caloric fruit and sports drinks? New research from the University of Texas School of Public Health suggests this may be the case.
Researchers found that unhealthy behaviors such as eating fried foods and physical inactivity "were associated with soda consumption, but healthy habits tended to be associated with higher intake of flavored and sports drinks," Deanna Hoelscher, professor of behavioral sciences and co-author on the study told the ABC News Medical Unit.
"That surprised us because it looks like kids think that these flavored and sports drinks are healthier for them," she adds.
Past research has lumped all sugar-sweetened beverages together, but this study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, looked specifically at how kids may be consuming non-soda sweet drinks, such as fruit punch or sports beverages.
While many of these drinks pack the same size caloric punch as soda, the data suggested that kids who were otherwise eating healthy and getting exercise where more likely to consume these drinks.
Nutritional guidelines suggest that sugary drinks should be limited to one eight-ounce serving per day, even for active kids. But of the over 10,000 Texas adolescents questioned in this study, nearly one-third had consumed three or more sugar sweetened beverages on the day of the survey. About one in five were obese.
The marketing on these items tends to be geared towards health, whether as a necessary aid to sports performance or as a fruity drink that kids may think actually has fruit, Hoelscher said.
"It's not very surprising," said Dr. Goutham Rao, clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "The way sports beverages have been marketed to children is astonishing. They're almost seen as an essential part of participation in sports, when the best beverage for a child participating in any physical activity is just plain water."
In advertisements, most sports drink companies say these beverages help replenish the body during activity by providing electrolytes, to speed hydration, and carbohydrates, for energy. But nutritionists said that to really require this type of electrolyte boost, kids would need to participate in continuous physical activity for an hour and a half or more.
"These beverages are overused, for sports, and for any time," said Heather Fiore, clinical nutrition specialist at the University of Rochester. "Even after an hour of exercise you probably only need eight ounces, but these drinks come in 16- to 32-ounce bottles," she said. Even though many sports drinks have half the calories of soda, the big bottles still leave kids drinking extra, unnecessary calories, she added.
Because of the association with physical exertion, these drinks have become an ever-present feature of sports activities, Rao said, and it's time that kids and adults realize that these drinks may not be necessary.
"The beverage companies have been very successful with marketing this as part of a healthy lifestyle. The kids playing have access to these drinks because the coach, teachers, and parents involved believe that's what they should be drinking during these things," he said. "But they should really be limited. They don't contribute nutritionally to children's health."
Across the board, nutrition experts said that just plain water is the best thing to give your child for sports practice or any other physical activity. What's more, it may be important to include flavored beverages and sports drinks in public health efforts to fight childhood obesity, said Hoelscher , the study's co-author.
"Public health campaigns are looking at limiting soda consumption [for kids], but you also need to look at limiting other sweetened beverage consumption," she said.