This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2009 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Ask any child to name their favorite beverage, and you’re likely to hear the names of soft drinks, sugar-laden specialty drinks or even high-calorie “energy drinks.” In fact, the average child in the United States takes in 172 calories of sweetened beverages a day.
A group of economists and health policy experts is investigating a creative and potentially healthful solution to the situation – a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The tax, proposed at one cent per ounce, would generate an estimated $14 billion annually that could be used to fund children’s health programs. Just as importantly, it might give parents the motivation they need to encourage their children to drink more milk, water and other healthy alternatives, thus reducing childhood obesity and the diabetes and heart disease that can result.
For children of all ages water and milk are, hands down, the very best beverage choices. Water is calorie-free and drinking it teaches children that it's actually good for them to accept a low-flavor, no-sugar beverage to quench their thirst. And on top of calcium — which all children need to help build and maintain strong, healthy bones — milk is packed with other important nutrients like vitamin D, potassium, and protein.
To make water and milk the mainstay beverages, in your home and keep your kids' sugary drink consumption to a minimum:
- Limit juice. A good rule of thumb is 4–6 ounces for children under 7 years old and no more than 8–12 ounces for older kids and teens. Not only does juice pack on added calories, the sugar in fruit juice can eat away at younger children’s tooth enamel, especially if they are allowed to drink juice continuously from bottles, cups, or juice boxes throughout the day or at bedtime.
- If you do serve juice, make it 100% fruit juice. Although there is no added sugar in 100% fruit juice, keep in mind that the calories from natural sugars found in fruit juice can add up.
- Don't give kids soda — they simply don't need it. That's because it has absolutely no nutritional value, but does have lots of useless empty calories and sugar. Plus, when children drink too much soda, they are much less likely to drink the milk their bodies really need. And, no matter what a child’s age, too much caffeine from soda, tea, or coffee can cause jitteriness, nervousness, stomach ache, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and trouble sleeping.
Look for flavored waters (if your children aren't too keen on regular water), which usually contain just a small amount of sugar or sweetener and added calories. But make sure to check the labels before buying, since some drinks may have far more sugar and calories than others.
Try sprucing up plain milk with a little flavoring like chocolate or strawberry syrup (if your kids tend to turn their noses up at regular milk, too), which may make it much more appealing and won't add a significant amount of sugar. But steer clear of premixed chocolate or strawberry drinks — they often contain a lot more calories, sugar, and fat than when you add in the flavored syrup to the milk yourself.
If you do serve your kids sweetened drinks on occasion, encourage them drink from a straw, which lessens the effects of the sugar on their teeth.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.