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Sweet Drinks Pack Lots of Empty Calories

By Maria G. Boosalis

Coaxing kids to make healthy food choices can be a difficult task for many parents. But what about getting them to make healthy drink choices? 

What children drink can drastically affect the number of calories they consume.  These choices can affect their weight as well as the amount of nutrients, especially calcium, they get to build growing bones and healthy bodies. 

Ideally, children should be offered two drink options: fat-free or reduced-fat milk, and water. In general, soda pop has too much sugar, as do other sugar-containing drinks, including juice. Even "unsweetened" or "naturally sweetened" fruit juices contain concentrated amounts of fructose, a naturally-occurring sugar. 

When kids drink too much juice, juice drinks, sports drinks or soda, they often do so instead of drinking milk, which contains the calcium they need.  Sugary drinks also pile on extra calories, which can contribute to unwanted weight gain and obesity. The American Heart Association also recently released a scientific statement recommending limits on the intake of added sugars.

Teaching children to drink water as a thirst-quencher is a good habit to start young, because water is both calorie- and sugar-free. Drinking fat-free or reduced-fat milk is another healthy option. A cup of fat-free or reduced-fat milk has about 300 milligrams of calcium to help meet your child's daily needs. 

Most young children need between 2-3 cups of milk or equivalent dairy products per day, while older children and adolescents need 3 cups or equivalent dairy products per day.  For exact amounts, visit the USDA's nutrition Web site at 
When it comes to 100 percent fruit juice, moderation is key. The appropriate amounts, though, are far less than many people might think.

For example:

Infants up to 6 months old should not have any juice.  

Babies 6-12 months old should have no more than 2-4 ounces per day and should drink it only from a cup, not a bottle. (A better alternative would be to provide this age group with age-appropriate fruits with no added sugar instead.) 

Children 1 to 6 years old should have no more than 4 ounces per day. 

Older children and adolescents 7 to18 years old should have no more than 8-12 ounces per day. 

Many kids like soda and want it every day, but soda has no nutritional value and is loaded with calories and sugar.  For instance, a 12-ounce can of soda pop, on average, contains 160 calories and about 10 teaspoons of sugar. 

A child who drinks just one can per day, over and above the calories he or she needs, will gain an extra pound every 22 days or so. With two cans a day, that extra pound would be gained in about 11 days, along with 220 additional teaspoons of sugar. Think of what that amount of sugar would do to your child’s teeth – or yours, for that matter!
Before you buy any sweetened drinks, stop to ask what nutritional value they provide and whether they replace needed nutrients (such as calcium and vitamin D from milk products) or contribute to excess weight gain.  Another way to practice moderation and avoid too many sugary drinks is to not put them in your grocery cart in the first place.  

Maria G. Boosalis is director of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences.