Children and Sweetened Drinks: What's a Parent to Do?

Trying to trim the sweetened drinks in your child's diet? Here are a few tips that can help.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 18, 2007
5 min read

The kids are home: Their first stop -- grab a sweetened drink from the fridge. It's one of several bad habits that have built a nation of overweight kids. When it comes to their health, children and sweetened beverages are simply a bad match.

Liquid candy -- that's what public health officials call these drinks. Most boys get 15 teaspoons of refined sugar daily, and most girls about 10 teaspoons -- all from sweetened beverages. That's the most sugar kids should be getting from all foods in any day's time, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

In a nation where one out of every six children is overweight and one out of every three is at risk for being overweight, sweetened drinks are a major health issue.

"Getting kids to avoid sweet drinks - sodas, Gatorade, fruit juice, fruit drink -- will help them lose weight," says Goutham Rao, MD, clinical director of the Weight Management and Wellness Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Author of the book, Child Obesity: A Parent's Guide to a Fit, Trim, and Happy Child, he adds, "Just that one change will do it."

Nearly 90 studies have linked sweetened beverages and children's weight problems. Even one or two sweet drinks a day can cause a problem.

Serving size has increased and "not only do soft drinks have a huge amount of calories, but they don't make a child feel full," Rao tells WebMD. "They still eat what they normally would eat." Kids may even eat more when they drink sweetened beverages. When the body takes in sugar so quickly, insulin spikes and then drops suddenly -- leaving you feeling hungry, Rao explains.

Unless artificial, low-calorie sweeteners are used, all sweet drinks -- like fruitades, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and sugary flavored drinks (such as Kool-Aid) -- pack calories. One study found that girls who got lots of sweet drinks before age 9 gained more weight by age 13. They also had prediabetes risk factors -- big waistline, high blood pressure, and low HDL "good" cholesterol.

Indeed, among overweight children and adolescents, pediatricians are seeing health problems they used to find only in adults -- high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels, which are risk factors for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

That's not all. Soft drinks are rotting kids' teeth, as numerous studies have shown. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, soft drinks pose a risk of dental caries because of their high sugar content and enamel erosion because of their acidity.And, because kids are drinking more sweetened beverages than milk, they are getting too little calcium for growing teeth and bones, reports the CSPI. That's especially important for growing girls, who are at highest risk of osteoporosis.

The final analysis? Kids need to know that sweetened beverages are bad for their health, say the experts.

That's where parents can make the most difference. By educating kids on the hazards of soft drinks and other sweet drinks -- and stocking the kitchen with the right drinks -- it's possible to short-circuit the connection between children and soft drinks.

For kids without a weight problem, one sweetened beverage per day -- as part of a well-balanced diet -- is fine, says Sarah Krieger, RD, LD, MPH, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "If children are maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and are active, one soda is OK."

The American Beverage Association agrees. "No single food or beverage is a unique contributor to obesity," says Tracey Halliday, a spokeswoman for the association. "Obesity is a serious and complex problem that is best addressed by living a balanced lifestyle -- consuming a variety of foods and beverages in moderation and getting regular physical activity. Quite simply, all calories count, regardless of the source."

If your child has a tendency to gain weight, however, it's best to keep these beverages out of the house. "Keep it for parties, since for most young kids that's about once a week," says Krieger, who is also lead instructor for children's weight management classes at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Also, limit other sweet drinks -- including 100% fruit juice. "Yes it's healthy, but it can have as many calories as a soda. One serving a day is OK, but that's all," she says.

In schools, there will be far fewer such drinks in vending machines, due to a joint effort between the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the American Beverage Association. "We are working together to provide students with even more low-calorie and nutritious beverages," Halliday says.

While that's a good start, "we need to empower kids to make their own decisions," Krieger tells WebMD. "Kids need to learn that too much soda and sweet drinks is bad for our bodies. Getting them to change does not happen overnight. But it can happen with small steps."

Getting kids to switch to diet drinks is one step. That saves 150 calories a day -- the number of calories in a can of sweetened soda, Krieger tells WebMD. She offers more tips:

  • Dilute grape juice, cranberry juice, Gatorade, and Powerade with club soda -- about 50-50. Young kids love the bubbles.
  • Stock single-serving drinks at home: low-fat chocolate milk, flavored waters, and artificially sweetened 10-calorie juices. Encourage kids to take these at home and when they head out the door.
  • Keep a pitcher of decaffeinated iced tea in the fridge. Teens love it.

Krieger even offers rewards to kids to get them to quit drinking sodas. In the weight management classes she teaches, the promise of favorite CDs and other prizes help entice children to quit soft drinks. "Rewards work," she tells WebMD.

When talking to girls about calcium, don't talk about bones or osteoporosis, Krieger advises. "Girls that age don't think about their bones. They won't listen. You need to talk about effects on their general health."

Also, "adolescent girls don't like guzzling milk," says Krieger. To ensure that girls get sufficient calcium, encourage switching from sodas to low-fat flavored milk, like chocolate milk. "Get them to eat low-fat yogurt, cereal with milk, scrambled eggs with milk."