The campaign by public health advocates against sugar-sweetened sodas may have had an unintended consequence: Teens are drinking more sugar-sweetened sports drinks.
Drinks shown in advertisements being consumed by impossibly fit athletes and named for fruits like mango, kiwi, and blackberry are aggressively marketed to teens. The packaging and ads make them look like a healthy alternative to sugary sodas, widely blamed for contributing to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other ills.
Now, researchers at Harvard University have found a small but significant increase in the weekly consumption of high-carbohydrate sports drinks among teens. The study, which will appear Monday in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed national data from the 2010 National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey and the 2015 Youth Risk and Behavior Survey. The researchers focused on teens because they're more likely than younger kids to buy their own beverages.
In 2015, more than 57 percent of the more than 22,000 high school students surveyed reported having at least one sports drink in the prior week, up from 56 percent in 2010.
Conversely, between 2007 and 2015, there has been a 7.6 percent drop in the number of youths reporting they drank one soda in the prior week, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.
The Harvard study also found that 31 percent of teens consumed between one and three sports drinks in the previous week, and about 12 percent reported having four to six such drinks.
Teens who played on one or more sports teams were likely to consume one or more sports drinks each day.
So were teens who watched more than two hours of television, which researchers said was a "worrisome reflection of the association between TV viewing, commercial advertisements, and obesity."
Boys were more likely than girls to guzzle the drinks, while Hispanic and black youths consumed more sports drinks than white children, researchers found.
But experts in nutrition warn that the average child — certainly not one parked in front of a TV – doesn't need a sports drink that is loaded with electrolytes and carbohydrates, flavors, and sweeteners.
"The better option is water or unsweetened beverages," said Nyree Dardarian, a licensed dietitian and director of the Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance at Drexel University. There is no purpose to consuming all the carbohydrates in sports drinks unless you are competing in a high-intensity game, not at a high school soccer or softball practice, she said.
A 20-ounce bottle of orange Gatorade has a hefty 34 grams of sugar, 36 grams of carbs, and 140 calories. Consume two or more sports drinks each week and over a year it can translate into extra pounds, said Dardarian.
"Don't drink your calories," said Dardarian. A more positive message would be to eat the calories. Water and an orange would provide 100 percent of the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C for kids ages 4 to 18, plus fiber, she said.
Healthier options for kids include flavoring water by squeezing fresh fruit into it, adding a splash of fruit juice, or drinking flavored seltzers, she said.
The same advice applies for adults. Rehydrating after a yoga class with a fresh-pressed juice adds 200 or more unneeded calories to your diet, she said.
There are occasions where having a sports drink is appropriate, Dardarian said. A cyclist planning a 100-mile ride or a kid in a day-long soccer tournament might want to use sports drinks to stay hydrated.
"If the child is only playing 20 minutes or rotating into the game, they just need water," Dardarian said.