Rethinking Kids’ Drinks: How to Foster Healthier Habits

We all know that sweetened beverage intake in kids can be a problem. Sugary sodas, energy drinks, fruit drinks and other sweetened beverages often provide extra calories with few nutrients. Drinking them is linked with poor oral health and cavities. They’re also easy to over consume, especially since they tend to come in large portions (12 to 24 fluid ounce servings are typical) and aren’t filling the way solid foods are. Sugar-sweetened beverages can also displace or leave less room in the diet for more nutritious foods and beverages.

There’s also evidence that higher sugar-sweetened beverage intake is linked with a higher risk of overweight and obesity among children and that reducing intake can reduce weight gain associated with their consumption. Initiatives to drink more water and to remove soda from kids’ meals will likely help to create an environment in which kids and their parents can make better beverage choices.

Two new studies underscore the importance of helping kids develop healthful habits when they’re young to prevent obesity and optimize health. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that children who were overweight at age five were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese by the age of 14.

Another study published in the Journal of School Health found that a lot of young children drank sugar-sweetened beverages and that the older they got, the more they drank. Compared with an infant less than one year-old, a child between the ages of one and two-years-old was 35 times as likely to consume fruity drinks, 17 times as likely to consume sodas, six-and-a-half times as likely to consume sweet tea, and about 53 times as likely to consume sweetened milk products. As compared with an infant less than one-year-old, a three to five-year-old was nearly 263 times as likely to consume fruity drinks, 30 times as likely to consume sodas, nearly 11 times as likely to consume sweet tea, and 375 times as likely to consume sweetened milk products. Led by University of Alabama researcher Jen Nickelson, the study concluded that interventions designed to prevent sugar-sweetened beverage consumption should occur early in life, ideally before children reach preschool age.

According to Nickelson, “To avoid the problems associated with sugar-sweetened beverage intake and to help ensure children have the nutrients they need for proper growth and development, its best to keep kids from drinking them to begin with. If children learn to love beverages such as water and milk early in life, they have a better chance of maintaining these healthier habits as they mature.”

Here are six tips from Nickelson to help you raise healthier drinkers:

1. Keep only healthful beverages in the house. For example, providing only water or milk in the home provides structure and helps kids know what to expect, at least when they’re home.

2. Be a good role model. If the kids see you drink water, they know you’re not asking them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.

3. Give them choices. Allow your children to choose healthier beverages in the form they enjoy. For example, they can choose plain water or water with lemon or other fresh fruit slices.

4. Encourage children to finish their milk at their own pace. Children resent being forced to do something, so if they haven’t finished their milk during a mealtime, you can save it in the refrigerator and offer it later when they’re thirsty.

5. Plan ahead. When you know you’ll be out and about, plan beverages ahead of time. Carry a sippy cup of water for toddlers and a trendy sports bottle for older kids. Water never goes bad; and if it spills, it won’t make a smelly, sticky mess.

6. Offer to bring drinks to your kids’ sporting events or parties. Bring bottled water (sugar-free squirtable flavorings can also make these more fun; I know my grandchildren love to squeeze the flavorings into the bottles and shake them up). Also bring permanent markers to label drink bottles to avoid mix-ups.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of two, I believe it’s perfectly fine to also offer 100% fruit juice to children. Of course whole fruit packs in fiber and is more filling than juice. But if you do offer fruit juice, limit portions to no more than four to six ounces daily for children between the ages of one and six-years-old, and to no more than eight to 12 ounces daily for older children as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Low fat flavored milk is also OK, though it’s wise for kids to cut back on their added sugar intake that day (eg have one small cookie instead of the usual two cookies for dessert) when they consume flavored milk.

How do you help your kids drink more healthful beverages?

Full disclosure: I’m a current spokesperson for the Got Milk? campaign.

For more ideas on where you can substitute healthier foods into your everyday routines, download our free guide.

Sesame Street Lessons: Healthy Eating
Sesame Street Lessons: Healthy Eating
Sesame Street Lessons: Healthy Eating

Image of child drinking water from a glass via shutterstock.

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