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What is the best thing for my child to drink?

Michele Grim  

Michele Grim, MBA, is a Registered Dietitian at Page Hospital.

Question: How can I keep my kids hydrated in this heat?

Answer: Kid’s hydration needs range from six cups a day for a preschooler to 10 cups a day for a 150 lb. teen. But not only is getting the right amount to drink important, but also is choosing what to drink.

When it comes to hydrating kids there's a dizzying array of sodas, juices, tea and coffee drinks, and bottled waters to choose from. Let’s take a look at some of the other beverages on the market and how they measure up:

  • Power Drinks: Power drinks can include anything from sports beverages to vitamin waters to "high-energy" supplement drinks. What they all have in common is added ingredients that say they "do" something extra, whether it’s to increase energy and alertness, boost nutrition, or even enhance athletic performance. But are they right for your child?

Not necessarily. The average child athlete can and should get all the necessary nutrients and hydration by eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of water before, during, and after exercise. During games and competitive events, drinks should be available at all times and regular water breaks should be scheduled about every 15 or 20 minutes. The amount of water an athlete needs can vary depending on the child's age, weight, intensity of the activity, and weather conditions.

  • Sports drinks are sweet, which may aid hydration in kids who otherwise wouldn't drink during periods of intense activity. Of course, these drinks contain calories, too, and can increase the risk of excess weight gain — if your child is active and drinks these in moderation, this shouldn't be a problem. However, sports drinks are not necessary for the casual athlete. If your sedentary child is a fan of sports beverages, consider sidelining these drinks in favor of plain water.
  • Vitamin Waters: These drinks, which are also known as fitness waters or enhanced waters, come in many flavors and contain various combinations of supplemental vitamins and minerals. They also often contain extra calories, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, or herbal ingredients whose effects have not been studied in children (such as ginseng or St. John's wort).

Vitamin waters may look like a quick way to fill any nutrition gaps in your child's diet, but these nutrients can come from a healthy meal or snack, too. Also, they can provide too much of a good thing, particularly if your child already takes a daily multivitamin. Getting more than the recommended daily allowance of some vitamins and minerals can be harmful to a child's health. Keep in mind that the daily allowances listed on the label are recommendations for adults, not kids.

The best place for your child to get daily nutrients is from balanced meals. If you're concerned that your child isn't getting enough, talk to your child's doctor, who may recommend a daily multivitamin formulated for kids.

  • Energy Drinks: These are becoming increasingly popular with middle- and high-school students who are looking for a competitive edge. And while some energy drinks are clearly labeled as unsuitable for children, others are specifically marketed to kids as young as 4, promising boosts in energy and nutrition as well as enhanced athletic performance.

Most energy drinks deliver a stiff dose of sugar and caffeine — sometimes as much caffeine as in 1 to 3 cups of coffee (Ounce for ounce, Red Bull energy drink contains as much sugar as a regular cola drink and has nearly 3.5 times more caffeine). Too much sugar can put your child in the fast lane to the dentist's office and also contribute to weight gain. Excessive caffeine comes with its own set of problems — especially in younger kids, it can negatively affect attention and concentration.

Many of these drinks also contain additional ingredients whose safety or effectiveness has never been tested in children — including herbal supplements, guarana (a source of caffeine), and taurine (an amino acid thought to enhance performance).
The bottom line is this: Energy drinks offer no real health or performance benefit for kids.

  • Soda: Soda is commonly served to kids, but this carbonated drink has no nutritional value and is high in sugar and caffeine. One study found that more than 1 out of 3 preschoolers drank soda on the day before the survey. On average, the kids drank over 8 ounces of soda or sugar-sweetened fruit drink. On the other hand, they drank only 12 ounces of milk, which is less than the recommended 16 ounces a day.
    Kids may be less likely to drink enough milk if soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are available. Besides calcium, milk offers other important nutrients, including vitamin D, potassium, and protein.

It's also easy to drink too much soda, and kids tend to drink increasing amounts as they get older. In older kids and adolescents, drinking soda and other sugary beverages has been linked to excessive weight gain and other problems, including tooth decay.
Soda is not recommended for hydration during sports and should be avoided because it contains excess sugar, which can lead to weight gain. What's more, the carbonation can upset your child's stomach. Soda also often contains caffeine, which acts as a diuretic (something that causes frequent urination) and may promote instead of prevent dehydration.

Everyone needs to stay hydrated to stay healthy, and you can't go wrong giving your child plain water. Water is a caffeine-free, zero-calorie thirst quencher. If your child isn’t a fan of plain water, try adding a splash of lemon or orange juice. You’ll get the taste of flavored water at a fraction of the cost! Limit the empty calorie drinks you serve, and teach your kids that water and milk are the best drinks for them.

  • Juice: Juice can be an excellent source of water, vitamins and minerals. But beware: fruit flavor in a juice doesn't mean fruit nutrition. The label "100% fruit juice" is the key to getting fruit nutrition. Beverages labeled fruit drink, fruit cocktail, or fruitade may contain added sugars which often replace fruit nutrition. These added sugars may also increase the calories. Also be sure to limit a child’s juice intake as juice contains a lot of calories and may fill up a small belly, making the child too full to eat nutritious foods. A serving of juice is only 4 oz., or ½ cup.
Page Last Modified: 08/05/2013
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