Like many little athletes, my boys enjoy Gatorade, Powerade and all of those other brightly colored sports drinks. I don’t. I have seen the commercials, so I gather that these drinks are designed to replenish electrolytes lost through sweat and that celebrity athletes drink them. Yet what kid actually needs 34 grams of sugar and a dose of chemical food dye in order to replenish after a one-hour sports game?
Yes, these kids are playing hard and sweating, thus they need to reload, but what they need immediately following a game is water. Could they use some electrolytes with their water? Of course. What exactly are electrolytes? In layman’s terms, they are minerals such as potassium, calcium and sodium that help water flow into cells.
If children require water and a few minerals after a game, why not give them a bottle of water and a piece of fruit?
A 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade has 75 mg of potassium, while a small clementine has 131 mg and a banana has 422 mg. A banana also has Vitamins B and C, 16 percent of the daily requirement of manganese, which is great for bones, and 8 percent of magnesium, which prevents cramping. There is even a gram or two of protein in a banana. A clementine has calcium, magnesium, Vitamin C and folate.
Besides the small amount of potassium, what else does the sports drink offer? Thirty-four grams of sugar. If a child with an empty stomach is given 34 grams of processed sugar, the sugar will flow into the bloodstream quickly. A banana and a clementine both have fiber, which slows any natural sugars from entering the bloodstream. There is no fiber in the average sports drink. This rush of glucose will raise a child’s insulin levels, and this elevated insulin triggers his body to store fat and to hold on to existing fat stores (for a good resource on this process, check out Mark Hyman’s book “The Blood Sugar Solution”). When the sugars hit the liver, they can be deposited there. So even when a kid isn’t “fat” on the outside, there is unnecessary fat storage happening on the inside, which, along with confused insulin responses, predisposes a child to all kinds of disease.
Obviously one sports drink isn’t going to doom a child forever. But setting the expectation that a child athlete “needs” a sports drink to replenish after a game or practice creates a long-term habit that can become dangerous when you think ahead to the number of practices and games he is going to play throughout his school years.
Now, I know some people are going to point out that sodium is lost through sweat in higher concentrations than the other electrolytes, and neither the fruit nor water provides sodium. But the American diet contains enough, if not too much, sodium, so chances are a child is just fine without the 270 mg of sodium in that same container of Gatorade. Remember that these drinks were originally designed for performance athletes, not growing children.
When I see celebrity athletes like LeBron James, Venus Williams and Peyton Manning endorsing the drinks, I often wonder whether they could just endorse water. If water were poured over the heads of winning football coaches instead of Gatorade, would kids across America lay off the sports drinks and drink more water? A mom can dream . . .
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.