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Family Nutrition & Health

Fighting Childhood Obesity at Home

Sugary Drinks: Not So Sweet
Julie La Barba, MD, FAAP

We are surrounded by special food diets. From low-carb diets with caveman roots, to other diets-du-jour, adults and children alike are bombarded with messages about what to eat. One thing is certain: To keep our weight in check, we have to take in the right amount of calories, whether we’re 9 or 90 years old.

Most of us focus on the food our families eat as we attempt to ensure a healthy diet that maintains a healthy weight. But it’s also important to keep drinks in mind too.

Beverages have a bigger impact on our overall health than you may think. And sugary drinks, in particular, really aren’t such a sweet choice.

Sugar-sweetened beverages make it easy for kids to pack on “empty” calories – high in number and low in nutrients. How? The body’s internal appetite controls register liquids differently than they do solid food. So, by drinking their calories, your children don’t necessarily compensate by eating less food later on. Bottom line: Drinks make it very easy for children to go over their quota for daily caloric intake.

Ever stop to think about the drinks you stock in the family fridge? How do they play into your family’s overall diet and health?

You hold the power to eliminate sugary drinks from your home and help your kids take in fewer empty calories overall.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are not a recommended part of a healthy diet and can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Here’s why
•  Sugar-loaded drinks are the single major source of added sugar consumed by the average American.
•  Finishing a 20 oz. can of soda is the equivalent of eating about 9 sugar packets (or 18 teaspoons) in one sitting.
•  Drinking just one sugary soda, “sports” or “energy” drink a day in excess of your daily recommended calories can pile on 25 pounds of excess weight in just one year!
•  Nearly 50% of the average American’s increased calorie consumption is from sugar-sweetened beverages.
•  The American Heart Association recently reported that about 25,000 deaths in the United States each year may be associated with sugar-sweetened drinks – and 180,000 deaths annually worldwide!

Who’s Profiting From Your Kids?
•  Sports drinks are marketed as a healthy alternative to soda, but are in fact not much healthier at all
•  The average American child/adolescent DOES NOT engage in enough physical activity to warrant consumption of sports drinks
•  Drinking sports drinks can lead to cavities and poor dental health
•  For most children and adolescents, consuming water before, during, and after physical activity provides adequate hydration.

Picture this typical commercial
“Superhuman athlete nails game-winning shot in overtime. Camera pans to glistening face. Smiling hero takes swig of neon colored sports drink before being hoisted off field by adoring teammates.”  Find me a kid interested in sports who isn’t thinking, “I’ll have what he/she’s having!”

In truth, there is no connection whatsoever between sports drinks and athletic ability. And in many cases, because of the refined sugars, a sports drink is less effective than water from a training standpoint.

No Wool Over THESE Eyes
Here’s the good news: Calories in drinks are NOT hidden. They’re listed right on the Nutrition Facts label! Model good habits for your children all the way down to your drink choices. Pause before you drink to think about just how many calories that beverage is about to contribute to your daily recommended intake. Because calories from drinks can add up quickly, consider trading the high-calorie container in your hand for a low-calorie option instead. Explain the smart choices you’re making with your children and encourage them to make smart choices too. Here are a few simple changes:

What About Diet Drinks?
This article is focused on sugar-sweetened beverages, but questions about substituting diet drinks always crop up.

From a nutritional standpoint, if you’re given a choice between water and diet drinks (marketed as sugar-free, artificially sweetened or “light”), water is the better choice. But in terms of weight control, assuming water is unavailable, it’s better to consume diet drinks in place of regular sugar-filled soft drinks, energy and fruit drinks.

However, some studies have suggested that diet drinks may condition our bodies to have a stronger preference for sweetness in general. And diet drinks may have negative physical consequences we don’t yet fully understand. This is a slippery slope that needs further study, and there isn’t a definitive answer on it yet. So when in doubt, reach for good old H20!

Why bother worrying about what you drink?
What difference does it make if you drink sugary drinks anyway?
Here’s why:
•  You’re adding a ton of calories to your day that you don’t need. A lot of the so-called fruit and energy drinks have as much added sugar and calories as full-calorie soda
•  Energy drinks aren’t helping you win or perform any better, despite what the commercials want you to believe
•  If you’re African American or Hispanic, you’re really getting bombarded by ads for these drinks. Are you really that gullible? 

Don’t Fall For It
Marketing campaigns for sugar-sweetened beverages are strategically targeted to you – whether they’re hawking full-calorie sodas, “sports,” “energy” or “fruit” drinks. The beverage companies know how to get to you too, using social media, TV and movie product placement and traditional advertising filled with celebrity athletes and extreme sports. And who can resist a tricked-out mobile marketing unit on wheels handing out freebies at music and sporting events? They have one singular purpose: To increase your consumption of these products and get you “hooked” despite their pledge to limit direct advertising to kids.

Then there’s caffeine. It doesn’t boost your energy – it actually just covers up your sense of feeling tired. Wonder why you have trouble sleeping? It could be because you had too much caffeine in your drinks that day. And if you’re downing too many energy drinks, you’re playing with liquid fire: So far 13 deaths have been tied to overuse of these kinds of beverages. Why? Unlike adults who can handle 200-300 mg/day of caffeine (that’s about 2 cups of coffee), healthy kids shouldn’t go above 45 grams of caffeine in a day (that’s about as much as in one 12-oz. can of soda). One serving of an energy drink can have up to FIVE TIMES that amount! Seriously. Not sleeping is bad enough – but you could also end up with muscle tremors, a faster heartbeat and an upset stomach. So, um, no thanks.

Epic Fail 
If you think sports drinks are better for you, then all that marketing is paying off. The fact is, those drinks are contributing to America’s obesity epidemic. And you’re at risk.

First off: Don’t equate sports drinks with athleticism or muscle. The drink company will say their product is for “the young athlete,” not that it’s a drink that turns your tongue some unnatural neon color you’ll never see in the rainbow. And even though the ads show images of getting into shape, you’re actually downing around 20 grams of unneeded sugar that makes your blood sugar spike – then crash.

Want to win? Keep these things in mind as you face the barrage of sports drink marketing efforts:
•  Sports drinks are marketed as a healthy alternative to soda but are NOT much healthier at all
•  Drinking a whole 20 oz. can of soda is the equivalent of eating about 9 sugar packets at once
•  The people who really benefit from sports drinks (due to their content of electrolytes and carbohydrates) are athletes who are engaged in prolonged (greater than 1 hour) vigorous (high-intensity) activities in hot or humid weather. Examples include football training in summer months, marathons, competitive soccer or tennis matches, and long-distance cycling races
•  The average American teen (yup, that’s probably you) isn’t physical enough to need sports drinks
•  Water is the best way to quench your thirst during your regular, under-one-hour outdoor sports activities in moderate temperatures.

Dear Water, I Need You Now and Always
Our bodies need water. After the first year of life, water is the only drink we can’t live without. It helps our body to work at its best.

But water isn’t “cool.” It’s free, has a plain taste – and certainly isn’t promoted by killer marketing campaigns. That’s why so many other drinks have successfully taken its place at the table. For the most part, those drinks have a lot of sugar, taste great, are fun to drink, and have developed a star-studded image. Major down side: They add a lot of wasted calories, very little nutritional value and can rot your teeth.  

It’s OK to continue to drink beverages other than water and low-fat milk, as long as you KNOW they’re contributing to your total daily caloric intake.

And if you just can’t live without your signature “cool” sugary drink, start substituting just one a day with flavored (without sugar) water. Like the fizz? Switch to sparkling water with a slice of fruit or a cucumber slice. Be creative as you develop your signature cool drink. You never know, you just might start a new water trend!   

Rethink Your Drink
Challenge yourself and gradually attempt to increase the volume of water you drink as you wean yourself off sugar-sweetened beverages. Challenge a friend to do it with you and you’ll be more accountable. Better yet, take the online Rethink Your Drink Now Pledge together.

Further Reading and Resources:

Nutrition Action Health Letter, Center for the Science in the Public Interest:
June 2006 Volume 33, Number 5

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