Should Kids Steer Clear of Soda? 37666

With soda sales slipping, Coca-Cola recently launched Quality Products You Can Always Feel Good About. This new campaign includes a series of print advertisements in which the company highlights what they perceive to be perks of Diet Coke. It goes without saying that such a campaign is likely to, on one hand, enrage those who feel that soft drinks should have no part in a child's diet, and on the other hand, reassure those whose kids drink the naturally or artificially sweet stuff.

Coincidence or not, just as the new Coca-Cola campaign rolled out, so too did the announcement of a study on soft drinks and behavior in young children. In the study, soon-to-be-published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found a link between soft drink consumption and aggression, attention problems, and withdrawal behavior in young children.

Using soft drink intake data (reported by mothers) of almost 3,000 five-year-old children from 20 large U.S. cities, researchers found that 43% of the children consumed at least one serving of soft drinks per day. Four percent consumed four or more daily soda servings. The researchers found that as soda intake increased, so too did aggressive behavior. Compared with children who didn't consume soft drinks, those who consumed four or more soft drinks daily were more than twice as likely to destroy things belonging to others, get into fights, and physically attack people. They also had more attention problems and withdrawal behavior. Interestingly, previous studies among high school students have shown a link between increased soft drink intake and self-harm and aggression toward others.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of two, when asked if it's OK for kids should have soda, I often say that occasionally drinking soda—whether sugary or artificially sweetened—is not going to ruin a child's diet. But soda shouldn't be a dietary staple. It doesn't contribute key nutrients kids need to grow and develop optimally. It doesn't fill kids up the way whole foods do. And studies suggest that intake of sugary beverages such as soda is linked with overweight and obesity, has a negative effect on dental health, and contributes to less healthful dietary choices.

Having once been a daily consumer of Diet Coke, I quit cold turkey almost two years ago and have not looked back. And even though the FDA deems aspartame—the artificial sweetener in Diet Coke—as safe, I had a fear that my several cans a day habit—and all that aspartame and other chemicals—would eventually catch up with me and impact my long-term health. I also quit my long-term habit (which I am convinced was an addiction) so that I could better model the healthier drinking habits I wanted to see my own children develop and maintain.

Although some (or many) may disagree with me, I am not, nor will I ever be, a soda hater (just like I'm not a hater of the Hostess cupcake or the Hershey bar). I don't believe in demonizing any one food or beverage. I also don't feel that it's necessary for parents or children to avoid or give up any food or beverage they enjoy—nutritious or not—in order to consume a healthful, balanced diet. As long as they consume such items in moderate portions on occasion—rather than daily—I see no reason why soda or any other nutrient-poor item should be beaten down or banned from the diet. The overall diet quality and lifestyle matter far more than any one food or beverage choice.

But less is still more when it comes to sugary or artificially sweetened soda. Although it does provide some hydration, it also supplies caffeine—something children (especially young ones) don't need. Kids' lower body weights make them particularly sensitive to caffeine's stimulant effects, so why get them started when they're so young? And while I'm not concerned about kids' having an occasional artificially sweetened beverage or item—especially if the sweetener they contain is FDA-approved—I encourage parents to help their kids get used to the taste of naturally sweet foods and beverages by offering those instead. And that's what I've done with my own kids. Even when I was addicted to Diet Coke, I seldom kept it in our home—or drank it in front of them. Subsequently, my kids seldom drank soda. To this day, while  my 15- and 11-year-olds have, on occasion, some Gatorade or Vitamin Water when playing several hours of sports, or sip on some soda at camp or at a birthday party, they mostly choose water, nonfat milk and an occasional cup of 100 percent fruit juice—just the way I like it.

Stay Tuned for Soda Wars: Health Experts Sound Off on Wednesday, August 21, 2013.

Do you give your kids soda? Why or why not?

Image of little boy drinking a glass of soda via Shutterstock.