Are Sports Drinks Healthier Than Soda? Teens Think So

A commentary on new research into teens' love affair with sports drinks.

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Teenagers think sports drinks like Gatorade are healthier than soda, and tend to choose them over milk. But sports drinks are still just sugar water—a diluted version of Coke or Sprite—and teenagers who think sports drinks are a healthy move are fooling themselves. The good news: Teens who opt for sports drinks tend to eat better and exercise a bit more than their soda-slurping peers, according to a new study in Pediatrics.

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Sports drinks are wildly popular; teenagers get 10 to 15 percent of their daily calories from them, according to a 2008 study. Interestingly, the spike in their popularity since the '70s mirrors the big increase in this country's childhood obesity rate (20 percent of Texas teenagers polled in the Pediatrics study were obese, a number reflective of national statistics). So it's no wonder that pediatricians and nutritionists look skeptically at sports drinks, which typically have about half as much sugar per ounce as a Coke. And servings are big; a 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade has 224 calories, all from sugar, while a 12-ounce can of Coke has 162 calories.

But do people who drink sports drinks actually play more sports?

That's what researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Austin asked 15,283 middle school and high school students. The teens who drank sports drinks were more physically active: They were more likely to participate in physical-education classes, organized sports, and vigorous physical activity. But that difference wasn't huge, and these kids are slurping up lots of sugar: Twenty-eight percent of the teens said they drank three or more sports drinks daily. Drinking just one soda or one sports drink daily can, in a year's time, cause a gain of 15 pounds, unless people compensate by cutting back on calories elsewhere or exercising more.

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The teenagers who drank sports drinks tended to eat more unhealthy foods, such as fried snacks and desserts, just like the soda-swilling teens. But they also tended to eat more vegetables and fruit, and drink more milk than soda drinkers. Girls who drank sports drinks were more likely to eat fruit and veggies than boys.

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The bottom line: Teenagers think of sodas and sports drinks as two different things, even though, as far as public health advocates are concerned, they're both just flavored sugar water. And teens think of sports drinks as being healthy, probably because of the big bucks poured into marketing them as the beverage of choice among professional athletes. If the public health folks want kids to cut back on sugary drinks, they'll have to figure out how to take on 40 years of messaging that has many kids convinced that when they're thirsty, plain old water just won't do.