Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sports Drinks Aren't Good for Your Kids (And They're Probably Not That Good for You Either)

UPDATE: When Christina posted a link on her Facebook to this, one of her friends suggested a natural alternative to chemically created sports drinks made by R.W. Knudsen Family. Recharge is sweetened with fruit juice and uses sea salt as a means of replenishing the lost electrolytes. Her daughters apparently are big fans of it and it comes in multiple flavors, including grape, mixed berry and tropical. Hey, it's worth a try.

It all started when I dropped an iron on my head. That's right, an iron, the instrument with which you straighten clothing. Did it hurt? Like a mother f@#cker. In fact, I believe that I used those words sans symbols when it hit me point side down on the tippy top of my head. On to the ER we went.

I should have checked the major league baseball schedule. Despite being die-hard White Sox fans, we live only blocks away from Wrigley Field. And anyone who's been to a Cub's home game knows that the north side minor league ball club (or at least the fans thereof) like drinking, more than winning. Far too many northside fans found their way to the same emergency room waiting room as me that day with game related injuries. Unfortunately, blood conquers head bonks in the ER, so my wait was long.

We settled in across from a young Hispanic couple with a child who looked about 18 months old. I feel it important to note that the “patient” was the father, not the baby. Soon after our arrival, the mother pulled out a container of Gatorade. She then opened her child’s nipple topped bottle and poured into it the neon orange liquid. I was horrified.

Truthfully, I’ve never really paid much mind to sports drinks. I’m not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. The only class that I was ever tempted to cut as a kid was gym – I would have much rather spent the time reading a book. Therefore, it’s probably embarrassingly unsurprising that I’ve never regularly worked up enough sweat to justify drinking these electrolyte enhanced beverages.

After this experience, however, I started paying attention to the marketing of sports drinks. Always associated with winning and beyond healthy professional athletes, I guess it’s not all that surprising that this mom, whose English seemed limited, would perceive this as a good choice for her child. My suspicions were confirmed after two experiences with highly educated parents about sports drinks.

The first came from my son’s classroom. During orientation, my son’s teacher suggested that each of the children bring a water bottle for their desk so that they could drink it during the day. A parent raised her hand to confirm the teacher’s request: “So we fill it with water or Gatorade.” Fortunately, Thor’s teacher is both health conscious and parent savvy and so her response: “Water would be great.”

I had my second experience at Children’s Memorial Hospital where Purple Asparagus was conducting healthy food demonstrations in the oncology/hematology ward. I was, in fact, relaying the former story to my contact at the hospital in the elevator up when a doctor (and mother) overheard me. Snarkily, she commented to her 9 year old son: “oh, so now Gatorade’s bad too.” She departed from the elevator and the gentlemen remaining on the elevator asked genuinely, "so what is wrong with it?” My simple response?

It’s blue.

Let’s face facts: the blue, green, and orange colors of sports drinks are not natural. I could go on about the issues posed by these coloring agents, but my friend, Christina LeBeau started quite a lively discussion over at her blog, Spoonfed, on the subject. Christina writes:

artificial colors are the charlatans of food additives: enticing, seemingly harmless… then wham. Linked to long-term health problems, these petroleum-derived chemicals often have immediate and devastating effects on children’s behavior and ability to learn. And unlike when we were kids (and our parents were kids), artificial colors are in everything, from food to toothpaste to medicine, even things that are white or look natural (check your pickles and “blueberries” ). Since 1955, that’s added up to a five-fold increase in dye consumption. Not. Good.

What else is wrong with it? A little thing called high fructose corn syrup. Oh, I know, the newly christened corn sugar folks would like to have you think that HFCS is just like sugar, except academicians have concluded that it is not, whether because it's been found to contain mercury or because it's been linked by a Princton University study to obesity, or just because our bodies just don’t quite react the same to it that they do to sugar. I've even seen a study that I can't quite my finger on right now that showed decreased sperm count in rats fed the stuff. The biggest problem with HFCS, as many of us know, it that it’s in EVERYTHING, or at least it seems to be in everything that’s manufactured by major food companies. Ever check out a jar of apple sauce? You might be surprised.

Gatorade itself has recognized that perhaps these things, these additives, might not be to everyone’s taste and have thus introduced G Natural with natural sweeteners and colorants. Hmmm.

No matter what the athletes want to tell you, to sell you, sports drinks are not good for you. And yet, sports drinks manufacturers and the elite athletes that they recruit to hawk their dreck would have us believe that it's a healthy choice for a healthy lifestyle. Assuredly, the MBA or professional soccer player who are, burning 1000s of calories in their hard playing game need to replenish their electrolytes and sports drinks are an efficient way to do so. But our kids, they don’t need it. I’ve seen parents pass out giant sports drinks at Tball games when the most calories expended by the players is by messing around on the bench with their buddies. Soccer is a more physical game with constant running. As the coach’s wife, I bring lots of water and cut up oranges. It seems to work for us.

But back to the young woman in the ER, is she blameless? Certainly not. Anyone who enters the endeavor of parenthood has a responsibility to educate themselves in some small way about how to feed their child. Nevertheless, to blame her entirely underestimates the power of million dollar advertising budgets of the companies hawking these artificially flavored, HFCS laden beverages. When parents with far more education and resources make the same mistakes, we need to realize that it’s part of a larger problem.

To end on a positive note, I learned from a comment on Christina’s blog that coconut water is an excellent source of electrolytes, so for those parents who think water and orange slices aren’t enough this is a healthy and natural alternative.

Look for more on pro athletes hawking unhealthy foods here soon.


  1. Thanks for this post! When I was younger I never liked sports drinks. I always thought they were sickeningly sweet. I had no idea they had HFCS because I honestly haven't looked at one. It's so unfortunate that many people are snarky upon hearing that their favorite items are bad for their health. Some people do not want to change out of their routine.

  2. when my cousin's mom was counseled by her pedi that she was approaching an unhealthy weight and recommended eliminating fruit juice from her diet, the family started offering her "healthy" gatorade. i guess pedis have to go a step further and emphasize that water and white milk are the only acceptable drinks for kids on a regular basis.

    sharing this on Kid Appeal's FB page.

  3. I use the same response about the drinks when people question me on why I don't think they are healthy ... "it is blue" or "it is red". 'Nuff said! :)

  4. Cassie, That's so true. And I think that some folks just like to be contrary. I see that with the McDonald's debate. Parents who should know better, and likely do, defending it because they don't want to be "told" what to do. I know that I don't know everything, certainly about parenting, so it's an attitude that surprises me even when it doesn't.

  5. Jenna, It's amazing - I posted a short version of this story on FB back when it happened and one person told me that she's heard of pediatricians actually recommending Gatorade to their patients in certain circumstances. Yikes.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Samantha, Yeah, other than blueberries, I try to stay far away from anything that's blue - it's just not right.

  7. My son has a terrible reaction to food color (esp when combined with high fructose corn syrup, which it almost always is) - terrible! Interestingly, my son's worst episode was after drinking a clear sports drink that was positioned as healthy and handed out after a sports class.

    Yes, clear doesn't mean there's no food coloring!

    Growing up we always had water and orange slices after activities and I've never witnessed dehydration. We need to get food dyes out of our children's diets.

    Great article, Melissa!

  8. Thanks Gina. It never ceases to amaze how well these beverage companies can insinuate themselves into "healthy" kids activities. My son told me that at his afterschool basketball program, they were handing out Gatorade as a reward. Fortunately, his school's is pretty vigilant on this issue and it stopped after I mentioned it to the afterschool coordinator.

    Though more on the orange slices soon. Make sure that they're from CA or you may get more than you bargained for.

  9. Thanks for the link on the natural sports drinks. My son has a skin condition that causes him to overheat very easily in the summer and often water is not enough to keep him hydrated, he needs the electrolytes, but I can't stand the sports drinks because of the added coloring (he is ADHD) I am going to give this a try.

  10. Jrmiss86, my so just tried the Knudsen variety and he would say that they're pretty good. They've got a number of flavor varieties.


blog design by brooksiedesign