Sept. 27, 2010 -- Teens with healthy habits are more likely to drink sugar-sweetened sports and fruit drinks than sodas, suggesting that they perceive these beverage options to be consistent with a healthy lifestyle, a study shows.
Researchers say the findings point to the marketing success of heavily advertised drinks that, like sugar-sweetened soft drinks, are high in sugar and have little or no nutritional value.
In terms of health benefits, there is not much difference,” study researcher Nalini Ranjit, PhD, tells WebMD. “Public health advocates have focused their attention on soda, and somehow these drinks have not been on the radar.”
Active Teens Choose Sports Drinks
The study involved more than 15,000 eighth- and 11th-graders attending Texas middle schools and high schools.
Ranjit and colleagues with the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health asked the teens about their eating and exercise habits and their beverage consumption.
A total of 22% of the boys and 17% of the girls were obese. Close to four out of five reported drinking at least one sugar-sweetened beverage the previous day and just over one-in-four (28%) said they drank three or more sugar-sweetened beverages daily.
Teens who drank sugar-sweetened beverages, including sports and fruit-flavored drinks, had more unhealthy eating habits, such as eating fried meats and chips more often than fruits and vegetables. They also exercised less regularly and watched TV and played video games more than teens who did not drink sugar-sweetened beverages.
Teens who drank sports drinks but not soda were more likely to participate in organized sports or engage in other regular exercise than soda drinkers. They also ate more fruits and vegetables, drank more milk, and had healthier eating habits overall.
The study was published online today in the journal Pediatrics.
Sports Drinks vs. Water
Sports drinks contain less sugar than soda, but the amount is still significant, Ranjit says.
By one estimate, sugar-sweetened beverages account for between 10% and 15% of calories the typical teen takes in on a given day.
Ads for sports drinks feature superstar athletes and tout the beverages’ ability to restore electrolytes and rehydrate the body after strenuous physical exercise.
But Ranjit says water is just as good for hydration in most cases.
“Only people who are severely dehydrated due to diarrhea or some other reason really need this level of electrolyte replenishment,” she says.
University of Minnesota School of Public Health professor of nutrition Mary Story, PhD, RD, agrees, adding that most sports drinks contain little more than water, high-fructose corn syrup, and salt with some potassium and magnesium.
“All the casual athlete needs is water,” she says. “If a kid is exercising strenuously in really hot weather for more than 90 minutes, a sports drink may be needed. But how many American kids do this?”
Beverage Industry Responds
In response to the study, a leading trade group representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry issued a written statement noting that the research did not show a link between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and weight, as measured by body mass index (BMI) scores.
The American Beverage Association statement also cited a recent government analysis showing a decline in the consumption of soft drinks and sports drinks among 12- to 19-year-olds.
“The beverage industry continues to change the beverage landscape for children and adolescents,” the statement says. “Starting in 2006, beverage companies removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools and replaced them with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage choices. As a result of this initiative, calories available from beverages in schools have been cut by 88%.”