The Sugary Truth Behind Sports Drinks and Teens

Think sports drinks are healthier than soda? You’re not alone. New research shows sports drinks are associated with some healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors among teens… but that does not mean these beverages are healthy.

From 1977 to 1998, adolescents increased threefold their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which include sodas, and non-carbonated flavored and sports beverages. Previous research shows that up to 15 percent of adolescents’ daily calorie intakes come from these beverages and these increases mirror the growing obesity epidemic in this age group.

A large cross-sectional study, recently published in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed dietary and lifestyle data from 15,283 8th and 11th graders in Texas. Past studies have shown that sugary beverage consumption is associated with weight gain and decreased milk consumption. The authors of this study, however, wanted to determine if drinking sugar-sweetened liquids varied with diet and exercise behaviors and gender.

The teens were given questionnaires that asked how many sugary beverages they drink daily, and about their intakes of healthier foods (fruits, vegetables, and milk) and unhealthier foods (hamburgers, fries, chips, candy). Participation in physical activities (sports teams and gym class) and sedentary activities (watching TV, playing video games on the computer) was also assessed. The researchers found that soda consumption was higher in the 11th grade boys than for the 8th grade boys. The same shift was not seen in girls, although the 11th grade girls drank considerably fewer sports drinks than the 8th grade girls. Overall, the questionnaire showed that both boys and girls drank between one and two sweetened drinks the previous day, and over one-third of the boys and nearly one-quarter of the girls drank at least three every day.

Interestingly, unhealthy food intake was associated with greater sugary beverage intakes and healthy foods were associated with greater intakes of non-carbonated flavored drinks, such as sports drinks. Furthermore, increased flavored sports drink consumption was linked with greater fruit and vegetable intakes among the girls, and with greater participation in physical activities among the boys. Sedentary behavior was associated somewhat with increased intakes of flavored sports drinks, but was much more closely linked to increased soda intakes.

As the research team points out, marketers advertise sports drinks as part of a healthy lifestyle, which may explain why flavored sports drink intake seems to be associated with healthier diet and lifestyle behaviors, while sodas are more strongly associated with unhealthy diet and lifestyle habits. But they also stressed that sports drinks – like sodas — are sugar-sweetened and can just as easily contribute to the rising obesity epidemic in adolescents as can soda.

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