Sweaty athletes are often seen in commercials reaching for a sports drink for rehydration or electrolyte replacement.
Yet many public health organizations are warning that sports drinks are a source of empty calories, excess sugar and increased sodium in growing children. Are kids getting the message?
A new study presents a mixed picture. A joint research group from Hofstra University and The Ohio State University studied national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2010 to 2015. The results show almost 58 percent of high school teenagers report drinking a sports drink “in the past week,” which is a small increase from 56 percent in 2010.
However, teenagers who reported consuming a sports drink “every day” decreased from 16 percent in 2010 to 14 percent in 2015. While more teenagers are drinking sports drinks overall, those that do are drinking them less frequently.
“Given that there was modest increase in weekly consumption, it is possible teens may be drinking sports drinks as a perceived healthier alternative [over soda] on weekends or occasionally after school,” according to Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York and senior author on the study.
A 2011 analysis by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found approximately that 27-40 percent of parents believe sports drinks are healthy for their children.
However, the data tells a different picture. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports that sugar-sweetened beverages account for 173 calories per day in 2 to 18 year olds, more than any other single category. A label from a popular sports drink shows it may contain high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, brown rice syrup, cane juice and maltodextrin – all of which has been shown to be associated with weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, non-alcoholic liver disease and tooth decay.
At the same time, the CDC reports obesity among children ages 2 to 19 has been rising from 14 percent in 1999 to 17 percent in 2014.
The new study also shows more clearly which teens are drinking less: the largest reduction in daily consumption was in African-Americans, from 26 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2015; however, African-Americans and Hispanics were still significantly more likely to consume sports drinks daily than any other group, consistent with previous research.
“The racial disparities with respect to sports drink consumption are also cause for concern,” the authors said. “The higher prevalence of daily sports drink consumption in 2015 among Hispanics and non-Hispanic African Americans, when compared with non-Hispanic whites and even after accounting for other confounding variables, mirrors the heightened obesity rates among non-Hispanic African American and Hispanic populations.”
Oddly, teens who were active and teenagers who watched more than two hours of television a day were significantly more likely to drink sports drinks daily. Dr. Sarah Keim, an epidemiologist and co-investigator on the study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus Ohio, explained why.
“Athletes may believe they need sports drinks to replenish their body after physical activity, even though for most people water is adequate for this purpose,” she said. “Teens who have less active lifestyles may simply be exposed to more of this advertising by watching more TV, and so are more inclined to consume sports drinks as a result. They are also more likely to have poor quality diets in general, and sports drinks fit into that dietary pattern.”
Sports drinks generated $8.5 billion in annual sales in 2015, a billion dollar increase from three years ago. This rapid growth is no secret to manufacturers. The Rudd Center notes Gatorade TV advertising to children increased by 26 percent between 2010 and 2013. The fact that the majority of teens are consuming one or more sports drinks each week is likely a testament in part to those marketing campaigns, Adesman said.
Last month, BodyArmor began a multi-million advertising campaign for its sports drink featuring NBA superstar James Harden. Keim noted that advertising often links these beverages with athletics, and teens may be susceptible to these messages.
She said the authors hope this study is an opportunity to reiterate that water provides enough rehydration for most teen athletes, and that sports drinks containing sugar are not a good daily beverage choice as they can contribute to overweight and tooth decay.
David J. Kim, MD, is a final year Emergency Medicine resident at the University of California, Los Angeles, working with the ABC News Medical Unit in New York.