How to Choose the Best (and Avoid the Worst) Drinks for Your Kids

So many beverage options, but not all of them are healthy

Contributor: Jennifer Willoughby, RD, CSP, LD

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When your child is thirsty, how do you steer them toward a refreshing and hydrating choice that isn’t full of sugar?

With so many different beverage options, it’s difficult to know what is both kid-friendly and healthy. Here is a guide to help you find the best thirst quenchers to pour into your child’s cup.

Why water is best (and how to jazz it up)

Water itself may sound like a boring and obvious choice, but its benefits can’t be rivaled. It offers only benefits, without any calories — restoring the fluids in your child’s body that are lost through metabolism, sweating and breathing.

Another benefit of water is that it has virtually no cost. Imagine how much you could save not buying individually packaged drinks that end up being nothing more than a sugar kick.

Try adding fruit and herbs, like lemon, berries and mint, to make infused water. Kids can choose which add-ins they want to use to flavor the water and make their own creations.

I always encourage parents to continue to provide and promote water even if their child doesn’t care for it. It’s so important to the body that your child just can’t go without it.

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Say ‘yes’ to these kid-friendly drinks

While you’re working on getting your kids to enjoy drinking more water, here are some other acceptable hydration options:

  • Sparkling waters: Choose those that are naturally flavored.
  • Unsweetened iced tea: Tea has been shown to have numerous health benefits due to its antioxidant content, and it can be a great form of hydration. Decaffeinated tea will be more hydrating than caffeinated.
  • Milk or unsweetened milk alternatives: Although milk doesn’t seem like the most hydrating drink of choice, it’s a beneficial beverage full of protein, calcium and vitamin D. White milk has a natural sugar that’s OK to include daily.

Say ‘no’ to these (even 100 percent juice)

Leave these out of the running:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, lemonade, fruit punch drinks and sweet tea: These drinks provide zero nutritional benefit. They increase the risk of weight gain and associated diseases.
  • Juice: Recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no juice for any children under 1 year old, and suggest limiting juice to a maximum of 4 to 8 ounces per day for toddlers through adolescents. You can get juice’s nutrients from a serving of fruit. A piece of fruit also will provide you with dietary fiber, which keeps you full and helps control blood sugar spikes. When juice is made, even 100 percent juice or juicing yourself at home, the fiber is stripped away and all you’re left with is sugar.
  • Energy drinks: Energy drinks are a giant blood sugar spike just waiting to happen. Additionally, the caffeine is a stimulant and not recommended for children, especially the excessive amounts in energy drinks.
  • Coffee drinks: In addition to the caffeine concern, coffee drinks are typically loaded with sugary syrups and high-fat milks, and oftentimes whipped cream on top. You’re not getting an afternoon pick-me-up, but a mega-dose of sugar that will leave you feeling sluggish shortly after. A healthier choice (for adults or adolescents only) would be a hot or iced coffee with milk or a milk alternative added.

Many people don’t realize how many calories are in these beverages. In addition, they are empty calories that provide no nutrients for your body. with 100 percent of the calories coming from sugar. So they’re not appropriate choices to hydrate your body or to promote a healthy body weight.

The skinny on sports drinks

Sports drinks or electrolyte-containing beverages can be incorporated into a healthy hydration plan if your child is exercising for more than 60 minutes. When kids are highly active and burning calories, these fluid replacement drinks are beneficial due to the added carbohydrates and electrolytes.

However, if physical activity is less than that time period, water is enough to hydrate and replace all fluid losses.

Sports drinks add to daily calorie and sugar intake in a large amount, just as any other sugar-sweetened beverage does. One bottle of a typical, 20-ounce sports drink contains approximately 34 grams of sugar – which is more than the sugar content of a full-size candy bar (around 27 grams).

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Satisfying smoothies

Smoothies are a highly consumed beverage, and they are a great way to get in some fruit and veggie servings.

However, commercial smoothies, either pre-bottled or from your local smoothie shop, often contain added sugars from juices, frozen yogurts, honey or other additives. One medium smoothie contains about 60 grams of sugar, much of which is added sugar.

To create a healthier smoothie, try making one at home and use water or milk as your liquid in place of juice. You can always ask at the smoothie shop to swap out the juice and frozen yogurt for low-fat milk or unsweetened milk alternatives.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.

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