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.
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 (AAP) and the American Heart Association (AHA) endorse 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. In 2017, the AAP recommended curtailing the amount of fruit juice consumed by infants, children and teenagers on a daily basis, advising that fresh, whole fruit is a much better way to give them their daily servings of fruits.
"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. After the first year, the AAP encourages consuming up to 2 and 4 cups a day of whole milk — unless there's a risk for obesity, and then transition to 2 percent — until the age of 2, but the milk should included with a meal and not just the meal. Up to the age of 8, dairy products can open up beyond milk, but everyone in the family, yes even the parents, should be drinking low-fat milks.
Some kids are allergic to dairy, however, or just refuse to drink milk. Try soy, hemp or rice milks, and be sure to look for calcium-fortified alternative milks.
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!
Coconut water is low in sugar and high in potassium, antioxidants and electrolytes. Make sure to avoid the sports recovery drinks that advertise coconut water. Either just buy plain coconut water or get it straight from the source. (Yes, coconut water is the water you find in the center of a coconut!)
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.
Herbal teas can taste great and many have medicinal qualities that help your kids. One of our favorite bedtime teas is chamomile. It calms the nerves and the GI tract. Try offering it warm with a teaspoon of honey. We also love iced nettle tea with lemon. Nettles are an amazing source of nutrients including iron, calcium, potassium and zinc. Nettles are helpful for childhood asthma, toning the entire body and hydrating.
This story was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated with new information.