DEAR DOCTOR K:
My son thinks sports and energy drinks will help his athletic performance. But are these drinks safe for teens?
I don’t think children and teens should drink either sports or energy drinks — and neither does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Unfortunately, these products are often marketed directly to children and adolescents.
Though the terms “sports drinks” and “energy drinks” are often used interchangeably, they are different types of beverages.
Sports drinks are flavored drinks that contain carbohydrates (usually sugar) along with some electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, potassium and chloride. They are important for many functions of your body’s cells, and they are lost when you sweat a lot. Sports drinks also may have some vitamins.
Energy drinks contain carbohydrates and may have the other ingredients of sports drinks. They also contain a stimulant, usually caffeine. They are not designed to replace minerals lost by sweating, but to give a person a sense of extra energy or alertness. There was a time when some energy drinks contained alcohol, but such drinks have been banned.
Soft drinks came on the market late in the 19th century as energy drinks and contained powerful stimulant drugs. For example, the original formulation for Coca-Cola contained cocaine. Really. (Once the addictive potential of cocaine became clear, the U.S. government banned it from soft drinks.) The main stimulant in modern energy drinks is caffeine. There typically is two to three times more caffeine in energy drinks than in conventional cola soft drinks.
The biggest concern about sports drinks, with their high sugar content, is that they contribute to obesity. Ads for sports drinks suggest that they are necessary for the best athletic performance. The ads would have us believe that we need sports drinks whenever we exercise to replace what we lose in sweat and to maintain energy. This is not true.
Sports drinks can be useful during prolonged vigorous exercise. I’m thinking of activities such as a soccer tournament, where a child plays several games in a row, or long-distance running for older kids. But for the vast majority of exercise that kids engage in, water is all they need.
Ads for energy drinks include the message that they boost energy, decrease fatigue and improve mental alertness. But my pediatric colleagues tell me that energy drinks should never be consumed by children and adolescents. In kids, they are more likely than in adults to cause agitation, anxiety, irritability and insomnia. They can even cause heart rhythm problems and seizures.
You may not always find caffeine in the ingredient list of energy drinks. But assume that anything marketed as an energy drink contains a stimulant (called a xanthine) that has the same effect as caffeine and can be dangerous for children.
So when you are packing your child’s sports bag, skip the sports and energy drinks, and pack a water bottle instead.