Three Simple Ways to Healthier Eating Part 1: Rethink Beverages

One question I hear over and over again when talking to people about eating fewer processed foods is “How do I start?” It got me thinking back to how I started changing my families eating habits, how overwhelming it seemed, and what small first steps I took. The result is this three-part series of posts about three simple things you can do to start eating healthier.

GOAL: Have kids drink only water or milk for everyday consumption. Relegate juices, sodas, sweet teas, sports drinks to the realm of special occasions.

WHY: Juices, sodas, sweetened teas, sports drinks, any sweet drinks add extra calories – and extra sugar and/or additives – to kid’s diets. Training kid’s palates to prefer the ultra-sweet taste of sweetened drinks (especially artificially sweetened drinks) will make them averse to the less sweet taste of fruits and other real foods.

What about 100% juices? They’re healthy, right?
One hundred percent fruit juices can be fine in limited quantities, but most kids drink way too much. They are filling, meaning kids eat less actual food. Even if the package says the juice is equal to a serving of fruit, juice isn’t like eating fruit – it has less fiber, it’s less satisfying, and it packs less of a nutritional punch. Making juice an everyday drink teaches kids that juice is an acceptable substitute for fruit.

What about Gatorade for kids who play sports?
The vast majority of kids do not need electrolyte replacement after exercise. Sports drinks just add extra sugar and calories (not to mention dyes and other chemical additives) to kid’s diets. Water hydrates best and sports drinks should be for occasional consumption.

What about diet sodas? The have no sugar or calories.
It’s true that diets sodas have no sugar or calories but that doesn’t mean they should be offered in unlimited quantities. Artificial sweeteners and other chemicals in sodas such as benzoates are potentially harmful. Diet soda has also been linked to weight gain. If kids are sucking down the soda, they aren’t eating other healthier foods or drinking water, which bodies need for optimal health. Save the soda for special occasions.

Older kids who have their own money may still buy their own sweet drinks when they have the chance. But if these drinks aren’t readily available at home, then having an occasional soda, sweetened tea, etc. out won’t matter as much.

The thing with sweet drinks is they create a cycle. Once kids drink them, they want more of them. Reverse the cycle! Limited consumption of sweet drinks will retrain kids’ palates to prefer less sweet drinks.

HOW: It’s not always practical to cut out the juice, soda, or other beverages cold turkey. Here are some real life steps you can use.

  • Decide how often you think sweet drinks should be consumed, such as once a day, once a week, only on weekends, or special occasions only. Maybe you will have different answers for different drinks (For example, a small glass of juice is okay each day, but soda is for special occasions only.)
  • Stop buying beverages other than milk and water as regular shopping list items. Instead, buy them once in a while or just for special occasions. If they aren’t in the house, people can’t drink them.
  • If needed, use a phase out strategy: limit to once a day, then once a week, then just special occasions.
  • Explain to your kids what the plan is and why. They will be more open to it and they will be more likely to internalize the change. Learning to limit intake of sweet beverages is important. Older kids can understand about nutrition and that bodies need nutrients and vitamins to function properly. Even young kids can understand basics like “juice will fill you up too much to eat your dinner” and “soda is a treat.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: Getting kids to drink mostly water and milk is healthier for them. Learning to regulate consumption of sweet drinks is important. It sets kids up for making good choices when you aren’t around. Kids will appreciate sweet drinks more when they are offered as treats and – bonus! – you will save some money at the grocery store.

Remember: I’m not a health or medical professional and this is not meant to be medical advice. Speak to your physician if you have questions about diet and nutrition.