It feels like we can't go a month without some discussion about a soda ban or tax as a public health initiative to curb obesity and diabetes. Whether or not you believe in direct intervention like taxes or bans, however, one fact is hard to refute: Too much processed sugar is a contributor to the obesity epidemic, especially among children.
Scientists from four major health organizations just released new nutritional guidelines for children, recommending healthy drink choices from birth through age 5. The comprehensive listing suggests that up until 6 months, babies receive only breast milk or formula, then water can be added to their diet. For the first 5 years, kids should drink mostly milk and water, avoiding any sugar-sweetened drink including chocolate milk, caffeinated drinks and toddler formulas.
The guidelines also suggest avoiding giving children any plant-based non-dairy milks like almond, rice and oat. They say soy is the best alternative if allergies are an issue or the family wants to avoid cow's milk.
One of the biggest restrictions is about juice, which is often a staple in children's diets. The panel suggests restricting juice to only a half cup per day for kids over a year old, but say avoiding it altogether is a better choice.
The guidelines, which are based on scientific research, were offered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association.
The scoop on sugary drinks
Despite a recent dip in consumption of sugary drinks in the U.S., American kids and teenagers are still relying on them for more daily calories, on average, than health experts deem safe. In a March 2019 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association endorsed several ways to intervene on kids' behalf, including taxes on sugary drinks, limits on how sugary drinks are marketed to kids and financial incentives to promote better options.
"For children, the biggest source of added sugars often is not what they eat; it's what they drink," says pediatrician Natalie D. Muth, lead author of the policy statement. "On average, children are consuming over 30 gallons of sugary drinks every year. This is enough to fill a bathtub, and it doesn't even include added sugars from food."
Even fruit juice, which many parents offer as a supposedly healthy alternative to sodas, is not consequence-free. Fruit juices are extremely high in sugar and low in other essential nutrients like fiber, when compared with whole fruit. Just one cup of orange juice, for example, contains 112 calories compared with the 62 calories in a single orange.
"Small amounts in moderation are fine for older kids, but are absolutely unnecessary for children under 1," said Melvin B. Heyman, who led the study that developed the new standards. Those small amounts range from up to 4 ounces for kids between the ages of 1 and 3; up to 6 ounces for children age 4 to 6; and up to 1 cup for children and teens age 7 to 18.
Thankfully, juice and soda aren’t the only options out there. Below are some healthy alternatives to try with your kids.
Water is far and away the best choice for a kid's drink. It can be consumed anytime and as often as needed. You can always add an orange or lemon slice to flavor it if your kids resist drinking enough of it, and my children seem to find ice cubes the most exciting treat in the world.
Milk or milk alternatives
Human milk or infant formula are the best for the first year. The new recommendations suggest that children from 12 to 24 months can drink between 2 and 3 cups of whole milk per day. If there's a family history of obesity or heart disease, they can drink 2% or low-fat milk can be an option. Children 2 to 3 should drink up to 2 cups of 2% or low-fat milk a day. Children 4 to 5 should drink up to 2 1/2 cups of 2% or low-fat milk a day.
Some kids are allergic to dairy, however, or just refuse to drink milk. If you choose an alternative milk, be sure it is calcium fortified.
DIY flavored milk: Here is a great way to flavor milk for kids who do not love the taste. The strawberries are also a great source of vitamin C. Simply blend 2 cups of milk with 1/2 cup strawberries until the berries are pureed. Yum!
Smoothies are fun and healthy. The great thing is that you can add a large variety of different fruits, veggies and even proteins. They can also be frozen in Popsicle makers for a tasty treat. And unlike pure juice, smoothies retain much of the fiber that makes fruit and vegetable such an important part of a kid’s diet. One of my favorite recipes is for a kale smoothie, which children seem to go crazy for.
Kale smoothie recipe:
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 1 frozen banana
- 3-4 handfuls raw kale or spinach
- 1 cup almond milk
Blend all until pureed.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated with new information.