What is junk food?

Last week a study in Pediatrics (Athlete Endorsements in Food Marketing, October 7, 2013) made headlines. Almost without fail the headlines used the word “junk” food to describe athletes’ endorsements and one headline went so far to say, “Yes, Peyton Manning is making you fat.”

When I read the study, it got me thinking about what is a “junk” food and who defines the parameters of what is and is not considered a “junk” food. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I am not so sure what a “junk” food is….is it a side of pork belly or a soft drink or cheese puffs?  Usually, a junk food describes one that is calorie-rich without providing nutrients. Does a sports drink fit that definition? Some would say yes, and athletes have been endorsing sports drinks for decades. While a sports drink might be a junk food to a sedentary person who never breaks a sweat, to an athlete a sports drink is a proven hydration beverage. The joint position paper of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine states that “beverages containing 6-8% carbohydrate are recommended for exercise events lasting longer than 1 hour.” The Evidence Analysis Library of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics goes on to say that ” current research supports the benefit of carbohydrate consumption in amounts typically found in sport drinks (6-8%) to endurance performance in events lasting 1 hour or more.”  Anyone who watches Peyton Manning or Serena Williams or LeBron James (all called out in the media reports for endorsing “junk” foods) knows they perform at a high intensity and duration and can benefit from the carbs and electrolytes in sports drinks. So, to a competitive athlete a sports drink is not a “junk” food so why shouldn’t football, basketball or tennis players endorse sports drinks?

Quick service restaurants were also on the hook for “junk” food and athletes’ endorsements. McDonald’s is often picked on as a provider of  “junk” food but did you know that 80% of McDonald’s menu items are under 400 calories? And, that in 2012 the default in the new happy meal is a side of fruit, a kid’s size fry, and a fat-free milk? McDonald’s has served 530 million packs of apple slices to kids in a one year period from 2012-2013. Of course, there are high calorie and high fat and high sodium items in any restaurant, but we often forget that there are healthy choices in every restaurant if one chooses to look for them.

And, of course we mustn’t forget the fry…a real junk food that is making us all fat, right? On average, Americans get about 1.5% of their calories from French fries. Potatoes are an excellent source of potassium, a nutrient identified by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as a shortfall nutrient. Only 2-3% of Americans had adequate intakes of this important mineral. And, frying of potatoes does not destroy the potassium as some people believe.

A further look at the Pediatrics article showed that famous athletes endorse more sports goods and apparel than foods and beverages. Yet, I didn’t hear anyone complain about sneakers made in less than desirable conditions in developing countries and sold for a tidy profit by U.S. companies.

I would like to see the media stop demonizing foods and instead help people enjoy their favorite foods in moderation (another word some people don’t like), but I like it just fine.

Coconut Water, Homemade Sports Drinks and Other Thoughts on Hydration

As college students make their way to campus, college athletes are taking the field and hitting the gym for sports training and competition. Two questions that I’m being asked are, “is coconut water better than sports drinks?” and “should I make my own sports drink to cut down on sugar?”

First, coconut water…although being marketed as “super-hydrating,” it isn’t better than sports drinks and for some athletes sports drinks still have the greater advantage. Coconut water is the liquid inside green coconuts and it not the same thing as coconut milk (which is made from pressing coconut meat). In a few studies coconut water has been shown to be an effective rehydration beverage compared to water but isn’t superior to sports drinks.

Here are the pros and cons of coconut water:

Pros

  • Similar in calories to sports drinks (46 calories vs. 50 calories per cup)
  • Slightly lower in sugar than sports drinks (about 2 teaspoons vs. 3 teaspoons of sugar per cup)
  • Contains some protein (about 2 grams per cup)
  • High in potassium…about the same as found in a large banana

Cons

  • Lower in sodium than most sports drinks and sodium is needed by athletes who sweat heavily and are “salty” sweaters
  • Can have a mild laxative effect when large amounts are consumed
  • Expensive…$1.75 to $2.50 per serving
  • Not all brands passed the Consumer Labs test to make sure that what is in the bottle is the same as what is stated on the label

Don’t be fooled by the claims of high potassium in coconut water….although it is a good source of potassium, athletes lose about ten times more sodium in sweat than potassium, so athletes need the sodium found in sports drinks.

And, what about the homemade sports drinks? First, carbohydrate in sports drinks is a good thing…the 14 or so grams of carbohydrate per cup help to replace muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) and makes the drink palatable. I’ve never been a big fan of homemade sports drinks because of the quality control….when you buy a bottle of Gatorade or PowerAde you know what you are getting. When you make your own sports drink and the recipe calls for a “pinch” of salt, how much sodium are you really getting? And, research shows that a beverage that tastes good will lead to greater consumption…and I’ve yet to taste a “homemade” brew that tastes good. I encourage athletes to stick to the tried and true sports drinks when exercising at high intensity, for long duration, or during hot and humid practices (think football, soccer, tennis, or cross country practice in August).

Enjoy coconut water if you want a light tasting refreshing drink (and can afford it), but athletes will still get great benefits from drinking sports drinks.

Warning: Read Beyond the Headlines on AAP Clinical Report on Sports Drinks

Today the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report (ahead of print in June issue of Pediatrics) on sports drinks and energy drinks for children and adolescents. I read the report and was interviewed by NPR, however, it appears I only made the cut for the blog article.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/05/31/136722667/pediatricians-warn-against-energy-and-sports-drinks-for-kids#more

The way this story is being reported reinforces the need to read beyond the headlines. The second sentence of the abstract clearly states, “sports drinks and energy drinks are significantly different products and the terms should not be used interchangeably.” The report goes on to say that “these drinks (sports drinks) should be ingested when there is a need for more rapid replenishment of carbohydrates and/or electrolytes in combination with water during periods of vigorous sports participation or other intense physical activity.”

In other words, athletic kids, especially those who exercise in hot, humid conditions, can benefit from using sports drinks as part of their hydration strategies. Fluids are critical to young athletes. Because of their size they have more surface area to body mass and they absorb the heat from the environment more readily than adults. Kids are at a high risk for heat illness when exercising in the heat and humidity of a summer day. My fear is that parents and coaches will read only the headlines that are reported for this story and not allow kids to drink sports drinks when they are needed for rapid re-hydration. August will be here before we know it and that means football practice…I hope the Gatorade coolers don’t disappear from the sidelines in junior high or high school football!

Sugar has become the scapegoat for childhood obesity and all dietitians agree that we should all consume less sugar. But, a sports drink has less sugar than fruit juice so sports drinks have their place in the life of an active child or adolescent. Yes, I used to be on a board of advisors for Gatorade, but I was on the board because I believed in the science behind sports drinks and recommend them for use by athletes of all ages.

The report contains some good information about energy drinks and I agree that kids and adolescents don’t need energy drinks…I think they can be dangerous for kids, especially kids who are active. Exercise raises heart rate so there is no need to go into exercise having consumed energy drinks with caffeine which can elevate heart rate, too.

So, read the report and gain some useful information, but please read beyond the headlines to make sensible, science-based recommendations for active kids.