Are Sports Drinks Healthier Than Soda?

According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, adolescents in states with strict laws regulating the sale of snacks and sugary drinks in public schools gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such laws. This is great news! However, while half as many U.S. adolescents as in 2006 can still buy high-calorie sodas in schools, other sugary beverages remain easily available at schools, a recent survey showed. University of Michigan Ann Arbor researchers found the trend in a survey of more than 1,900 public schools, which has grown as the institutions banish sodas from vending machines, school stores and cafeterias.

It is concerning to me, as well as, many other public health experts and medical professionals that there is very little regulation of other sugary beverages sold in schools. Schools should be setting the example of making healthful choices for life. The fact that fruit drinks, sports drinks and other beverages with added sugar and calories that could lead to obesity over time can still be bought easily in schools reflects a nationwide trend that consumers view these drinks as healthier alternatives.

What kids and adults alike need to realize is that these drinks that can still pack excess calories and sugar. Consider this statistic: Consuming one 12-ounce (355-milliliter) sweetened soft drink per day increases a child’s risk of obesity. Research shows that these sugary drinks directly relate to higher incidents of obesity and many youth – and adults – are still consuming them unnecessarily. They were designed for athletes who have been sweating for an hour or more, not for children as they walk across campus or eat their lunch. 

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), added sugar is defined as any sugar or syrup that is added to foods during processing or preparation, and sugar or syrup that is added at the table during meal times. Soft drinks and sweetened beverages are the number-one culprit in Americans’ diets, with one can of soda containing 8 teaspoons and almost 130 calories of sugar.
Additionally, sodas and other beverages high in sugar are among the most prominent factors contributing to our nation’s obesity epidemic. Consider this: A 32 ounce sports drink has 14 teaspoons of sugar!

The AHA recently released new guidelines limiting the amount of added sugar considered acceptable for a healthy diet. Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. As your child grows into his pre-teen and teen years, and his caloric range increases to 1,800 to 2,000 a day, the maximum amount of added sugar included in his daily diet should be 5 to 8 teaspoons. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting juice intake to 4-6 ounces – which is less than 1 cup (118-177 milliliters) – for kids under 7 years old, and no more than 8-12 ounces (237-355 milliliters) of juice for older kids and teens.

Specifically, sports drinks or electrolyte replacement beverages are designed to replace fluids after vigorous exercise and generally contain sodium and potassium to help fluids absorb in the body. Even after strenuous exercise (continuous vigorous exercise for more than 60 minutes) research indicates that sports drinks serve no added benefit over water. Additionally, studies show that consumption of too much added sugar can make kids have a harder time learning and can cause erosion of tooth enamel from the acidity and dental cavities (or caries) from the high sugar content.  

Such drinks should be regulated in schools in favor of water, low-fat or nonfat milk and 100 percent vegetable juices with no added sugar. The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies of Sciences which advises the U.S. government on related issues, has already called for the elimination of regular sodas, allowing sports drinks only for certain student athletes, and limiting other diet or caffeine-free drinks to high schools students. USDA’s pending rules are supposed to cover food and drinks sold in school vending machines, snack bars, school stores and cafeteria “a la carte” lines. In the meantime, some school districts across the United States have already sought to make voluntarily efforts to push healthier vending machine options.

These voluntary efforts are much needed and hopefully continue to become commonplace. In the meantime, here are some tips to limit soda and sugary beverages in your child’s diet:

-Kids are very visual. Show them how many teaspoons of sugar are actually in a can of soda. It is basically like eating straight up sugar packets!

-Infuse water with fun fruits and veggies that your child likes. For example, cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon all make great choices.

-Add a splash of 100% fruit juice to seltzer water for a healthy fizzy drink.

-Make a fruit smoothie with frozen bananas, low fat yogurt and 1 tbsp of reduced fat peanut butter.

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