Soda Wars: Experts Sound Off

In my last parents.com post, I shared my thoughts on whether or not soda could—or should—be a part of kids’ diets. While I certainly don’t think of sugary or artificially sweetened sodas as good-for-you beverages, I also don’t think of them as poison. Although I don’t give or encourage my kids to drink soda or other sweetened, nutrient-poor beverages, they drink it on occasion—just like they have candy or cookies or ice cream once-in-a-while. They know the difference between nutrient-rich and nutrient-poor foods, and I teach them the best I can from my example and from education and experience to choose mostly nutritious options and to keep portions of nutrient-poor options small and to consume such foods infrequently.

It’s always a challenge for parents to feed kids well. But I don’t believe there’s only one way for parents to raise their children to eat well and nutritiously. Each family should find what works for them to help raise healthful eaters who are active and fit and who feel good about food and their bodies. Ultimately, it is up to parents to decide what messages about food and eating they want to pass on to their children and to create an environment that supports those messages. It is also parents’ prerogative to decide what (if any) role different foods and beverages—soda, or other empty-calorie foods—should  play  in their kids’ diets.

Because I don’t consider my personal opinion about feeding children to be the only—or right—opinion all must share, I queried several dietitians, a physician, and a health advocate to share their thoughts about the soda issue. Here’s what they had to say.

When I was a child, soda was a special treat–it was reserved for family picnics and rare dinners out.  We drank water when we were thirsty.  Now, children find water boring–they want it flavored with something–primarily sugar and artificial flavorings.  While I don’t think it’s effective to demonize sodas, we need to get back to our roots.  There is a strong relationship with soda consumption and childhood obesity.  Let soda be for special occasions, dinners out, parties, picnics.  Don’t bring it home and stock it in the house as a regular part of the diet. Let children drink water–straight out of the tap–when they’re thirsty.  It will be better for their health, and it’s better for the environment.  

~Sharon Palmer, RD,  author, The Plant-Powered Diet

I have adult daughters, but when they were small, soda was not allowed in the house. They could have their choice of soda on their birthdays and I know they had it when at a friend’s house. As my daughters went through their teen years and college, the both said that while they did drink soda once-in-a-while, it wasn’t something they craved. Instead, both chose mostly water and homemade smoothies. I believe parents control what foods and beverages are in the home. If you don’t purchase soda, then children don’t have access to it. And that makes it much easier for them to enjoy the most natural hydrator—water.

~Debra King, MS, RDN, LD, CEO, Crown Consulting

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mom of an active five-year-old, I believe that moderate soda intake is acceptable for my child. We live in the hot and sunny south, and my child plays outside all day. He drinks a variety of drinks, and milk is his favorite. However, when it is hot outside, and he is playing and sweating, he also drinks water, and sometimes a regular or diet soda.  I do not allow him to have soda that contains caffeine as he already so full of energy. My child is lean and eats a diet based on fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy, whole grains and lean protein.  He does not like or ask for cakes, cookies, pies etc. Labeling a food or beverage as “good” or “bad” doesn’t make sense to me, because if a child is not allowed soda, but is allowed high sugar treats throughout the day, what is the difference? I understand the AAP’s position on eliminating soda in children’s diets, but I think that education would be a better tactic. An occasional soda, regular or diet, in the context of an otherwise healthy low fat diet is not the enemy. This is especially true in active children of normal weight.

~Melissa Herrmann Dierks, RDN, LDN, CDE, Eat Smart Nutrition Co.

(Disclaimer: Melissa is also a consultant to the food and beverage industry, including Coca-Cola.)

We rarely had soda in our house and consequently, my kids didn’t develop a taste for it. However, once my kids went to school, it was a different story. My son (who is now 29, I might add) was given FREE soda at his middle school as part of a soft drink promotion. It was widely available in school and sports settings. Schools today also have fundraising McTeacher nights or Pizza Hut coupons for rewards for reading which promotes fast food and soft drink consumption. This creates a tough situation for parents because it put us up against a very powerful and savvy marketing and media machine. When it comes to diet soda, I absolutely do not support diet soft drink intake  because of metabolic issues we don’t fully understand. If I had to choose between regular or diet soda, I would rather dilute a regular soda with plenty of carbonated water and ice to create a fizzy, refreshing taste, than give kids or adults diet soda. Parents should also know that most commercial soft drinks contain GMO sweeteners, and the cans may be lined with BPA.

~Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, Host, Food Sleuth Radio

As the mom of two school aged children, this is always a challenge. There are peer influences, as well as a desire for that extreme sweet taste, that sometimes override sensibilities. I am opposed to children drinking soda as there’s no good that comes from it. Soda provides empty calories and excess sugar, not to mention chemicals that affect children’s insides (though we’re not yet sure how).  My gut reaction is for kids to avoid soda altogether. We never keep soda in our house, but what our kids drink when at their friends’ houses or when dining out might be another story…

~Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, LDN, author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods (Alpha Books/Penguin)

Low-calorie sweeteners, including those in diet soda, are some of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients on record and numerous robust scientific studies show they are safe for people of all ages. The American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics all agree that low-calorie sweeteners can help safely control blood sugar and achieve health goals.

 ~Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Scientific Affairs Specialist, Calorie Control Council

I tell my adolescent patients to avoid soda as much as possible. It’s an empty-calorie beverage that can do more harm than good! The American Heart Association recommends that children have no more than six added teaspoons of sugar daily. One 12-ounce bottle has nine teaspoons. I would rather have my clients drink beverages sweetened with a little stevia or one to two teaspoons of sugar than sip diet sodas as I feel it is an unhealthy beverage. Artificial sweeteners have zero nutritional benefit. And there are so many healthy drink options: water, seltzer, herbal teas, seltzer with a little fruit juice. Eating/ drinking real whole foods is a better choice than consuming products with artificial ingredients.

~Lisa Stollman, MA, RDN, CDE, CDN, author of The Teen Eating Manifesto: The Ten Essential Steps to Losing Weight, Looking Great and Getting Healthy 

We recently were on vacation in Atlanta, Georgia. Our friends and family were after us to visit the Coca-Cola Factory. I just said ‘NO’ because I would have been more critical about the whole process and how the factory worked rather than enjoy myself. I thought, why bother tasting soda flavors from so many countries when it’s not doing anything good for us. But even after hearing about the factory from their friends and checking out the factory’s website, reading about the tour and all the fun things they’d do and see on the tour, they still said NO even though they were given the freedom to make a choice. I was amazed! I am a strong believer of not having soda at home or offering to others when entertaining. I think this has rubbed off on my children. I do allow them to have soda if they wish when they’re at a birthday party. My 10-year-old son sometimes drinks Fanta, but my six-year-old daughter still chooses water over soda. One thing I constantly do is to remind them if something is good for them, and why soda is not good for them. I teach them not to succumb to peer pressure by drinking soda. I also teach them that they are responsible for their own health and that they actually have the power to influence other kids just by making a better choice for themselves.

~Shivani Sharma RD, LD, CLT, author, speaker and nutrition educator

I think it absolutely depends on the family and the child. The worst thing I could ever do with my oldest son who became obese during adolescence and who had oppositional tendencies (his story appears in my book, Weight Loss Confidential - he’s now 29 and manages his weight reasonably well) was to not allow something in the house. It only made him want it all the more.

~Anne M. Fletcher, MS, RD, LD, Anne M. Fletcher Communications, Inc.

I personally feel that nothing has to be completely avoided, especially for children. If you categorize foods or beverages as “never” or “forbidden” items, it may contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food. However, parents and caregivers should promote healthier options (like water or low- or nonfat milk ) on most occasions. and offer soda or juice less frequently. That can teach children that, over time, drinking too much soda—regular or diet—does not benefit health and may, down the road, add to health problems many of us adults face today.

~Melissa Mitri, RD, CDN

Should kids drink soda? No, except for on the rare occasion. If we teach our kids that food and drink are fuel for our bodies, soda is definitely not high octane!

~Jennifer Ashton, MD, ABC News Senior medical contributor and author of The Body Scoop for Girls

I think soda and diet soda are harmful to the body and should not be consumed by parents or children. There are no benefits to having it as a part of your life or healthy lifestyle, and there are risks associated with drinking it. For one, aspartame—the artificial sweetener found in Diet Coke—is made of three chemicals: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. Aspartame consumption has been linked with various diseases including cancer, muscular sclerosis, and diabetes and may contribute to weight gain, headaches, or fatigue. People need to realize they can still enjoy their lives and prevent disease by eating real food and drinking beverages. Once we start taking responsibility for what we put in our bodies, and make better choices that help us have healthier hearts, good eyesight, energy, mental clarity, strong bones, and clear skin, we will become a healthy nation instead of a sick one.

~Sarah Stanley, health advocate and endurance athlete

What’s your opinion? Are you yes, no, or somewhere in the middle when it comes to your kids and soda intake?

Image of little girl drinking water with young mother via Shutterstock.

 

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