Health Campaign Says No to Soda 37643

Should young children be steered far far away from sugary beverages towards good old H20?

Apparently they should according to Sugar Bites, a new anti-obesity social marketing campaign. Launched in Contra Costa County, California and co-sponsored by First 5 Contra Costa and Healthy and Active Before 5, the campaign targets parents of toddlers and preschoolers. The goal: to have parents offer to their young children water instead of soda, juice drinks, flavored milk and sports drinks.

The campaign claims that such beverages are "loaded with added sugars and calories with little nutritional value." Although the campaign doesn't label 100 percent fruit juice as a dietary devil, parents are urged to limit children's fruit juice intake to four to six ounces daily as recommended for one to six year-olds by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

On the home page of the campaign website, an infographic outlines how many teaspoons of added sugar each of the sugar-sweetened beverages contain. It also says today's kids drink twice as many calories from sugary drinks as they did three decades ago, and cites research that suggests sugary beverage intake significantly increases kids' risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

As a registered dietitian and nutritionist and mother of two, I fully support the idea of teaching children from a young age to hydrate mostly by drinking water. I also encourage parents to offer their children fruits and vegetables early on and often. Repeated exposure to naturally water-packed foods not only helps children stay hydrated, but provides them with fiber and countless vitamins and minerals to keep them healthy. It also helps children develop their tastes and preferences for such foods. Research suggests that it may take up to 8 to 20 exposures before children accept and prefer a new food, so parents need to keep in mind that perseverance can pay off—eventually!—when feeding children.

It goes without saying that children should undoubtedly limit added sugars in their diet. And it's clear sugary beverages contribute a good share of children's total added sugar calories. Because young children require fewer calories than older ones, they have even less room in their diets for foods and beverages that offer a lot of calories with few nutrients. Instead, they need to fill their plates and cups with mostly nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy foods, and lean protein foods to grow and develop optimally.

Current government dietary guidelines and ChooseMyPlate call for reduced intake of added sugars among all Americans. Children can, however, safely consume about 10 percent of their total calories as added sugar. For a typical preschool child who consumes 1,000 to 1,200 calories, that's 25 to 30 grams, 100 to 120 calories, or about 6 to 7.5 teaspoons of added sugar daily.

Although typical intake of added sugar among children continues to exceed current recommendations, the tide seems to be turning. A 2013 review of several national surveys show that intake of added sugars among children has decreased between the mid 1990's and today. Perhaps Sugar Bites and similar initiatives will prove to further reduce added sugar intake among children.

While I generally support this campaign and appreciate its focus on early intervention and prevention, I think it unfairly lumps flavored milk with soda and other sugary beverages. They're very different! While one cup or box of low fat chocolate milk provides some added sugar—10 grams, 40 calories, or 2.5 teaspoons worth—it also packs in tons of nutrients. As I've said in the past, milk is a good or excellent source of nine essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, phosphorus, vitamin A, and vitamin B12.

Still, it's prudent for parents to introduce young children to foods and beverages made without added sugars. And when it comes to milk, I encourage parents to first offer plain white milk rather than flavored kinds to get children used to, and learn to prefer, its taste. But if after many tries your children refuse to drink plain low fat or nonfat milk—or even if they occasionally want a delicious low fat chocolate milk—parents shouldn't feel guilty about including it as a sweet way to get important nutrients into their children's diets. In my book, usual eating and fitness patterns matter more to the health and well-being of children than simply one food or beverage choice.

While I agree that there's a lot of data that links sugary beverage intake with adverse health effects such as higher body weight, more obesity, and more type 2 diabetes, a lot more research is needed before we can definitively say that drinking sweet beverages causes all of these conditions. I won't argue that sugar-sweetened beverages are healthy, and it's very likely that a high intake of them in young children is linked with other less-than-healthful food and lifestyle habits. But flavored milk and even an occasional soda or fruity drink can fit into a child's otherwise healthful diet. You may or may not agree. But I truly feel that not everything we eat and drink has to be nutritionally stellar. Sometimes it's ok to have something simply because you want it and it tastes good. It's when we have too much of these nutrient-poor beverages and foods too often in the context of an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle that it can becomes a problem we need to address.

What are your thoughts about this campaign?

Image of dietary warning of sugary drinks via Shutterstock.