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U of M study links sports and energy drinks to unhealthy teen behaviors

The findings suggest that the beverages are part of a cluster of poor behavioral choices, such as smoking and excessive video game-playing.

Girls who drank sports drinks at least once a week were twice as likely to smoke cigarettes.

Adolescents who consume sports and energy drinks at least once a week are more likely than their peers to drink other sugar-sweetened beverages, to smoke and to spend sedentary time playing video games and watching television, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota.

For example, boys in the study who drank energy drinks at least once a week spent an average of about four hours more per week playing video games, and girls who drank sports drinks at least once a week were twice as likely to smoke cigarettes.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the consumption of sports and energy drinks is causing the teens to engage in those other behaviors. But the findings are troubling because they suggest that these beverages are part of a cluster of behavioral choices associated with poorer health outcomes, said Nicole Larson, the study’s lead author and a senior research associate at the U’s School of Public Health, in a phone interview Monday.

Part of Project EAT

For the study, Larson and her colleagues surveyed a racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of almost 2,800 teens from 20 different middle and high schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The teens were asked about a variety of health-related behaviors, including how often they drank sports and energy drinks.

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The surveys were part of the U’s Project EAT, an ongoing research initiative that began questioning Minnesota teens and their families about their dietary habits in the late 1990s. The data for the current study came from surveys taken during the 2009-2010 academic year (EAT 2010).

The data did reveal what might seem at first glance to be a positive association: Teens in the study who consumed sports drinks at least once a week tended to be more physically active and more likely to participate in organized sports than their non-sports-drink-consuming peers.

But that link worries health officials. As the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) pointed out in a 2011 report, sports drinks offer no benefits to young people, only risks. For unlike water — the best form of hydration for young athletes, stressed the AAP — sports drinks are laden with sugar, which can contribute to excess weight gain and tooth decay.

Energy drinks, which are often confused with sports drinks, contain an additional health risk: a large amount of caffeine and other stimulants. These ingredients can be hazardous if consumed quickly, in large quantities or with alcohol, and have been linked to seizures, heart rhythm problems and even death among young people, according to the AAP.

Energy drinks “have no place in the diet of children and adolescents,” the AAP warned.

Targeting youth

Unfortunately, the consumption of both sports and energy drinks are on the rise among adolescents — even as the young people’s consumption of other sugar-sweetened beverages has declined.

Indeed, 38 percent of the teens in the U’s study said they consumed sports drinks and 15 percent said they consumed energy drinks at least once a week.

Those numbers are likely to climb, for the beverage companies that make these products are increasingly targeting youth, said Larson.

“They’re often promoted in terms of their health benefits, so they tend to be viewed [mistakenly] as a healthier option than sodas,” she added.

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One study found that between 2008 and 2010, exposure to TV advertisements for energy drinks increased 23 percent among children and 20 percent among teens. Black youth seem to be particularly targeted. The same study found that black children and teens were exposed to more than twice as many of these advertisements as white youth.

In addition, as was reported last year, energy drink companies have recently hired lobbyists to fight government investigations into the safety of their products.

That development, write Larson and her colleagues, “signals an even greater need for public health advocacy in this area.

In the meantime, parents should be “encouraging their teens to drink water for hydration, particularly now as we head into summer,” said Larson.

The U study was published Tuesday in the May/June edition of Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.