7 Alternatives to Soft Drinks to Keep Children Healthier

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Americans buy more soft drinks per capita than people in any other country in the world. They sure do taste good, but is that worth all of the potential health risks? The latest study highlights the negative behavioral effects that sodas have on children, which include aggression, attention problems, and withdrawal behavior.

Shakira Suglia ScD and colleagues from Columbia Univeristy’s Mailman School of Public Health, the University of Vermont, and Harvard School of Public Health assessed approximately 3,000 five-year-old children enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study with includes families from 20 large US cities. Mothers reported on their child’s soft drink consumption and completed the Child Behavior Checklist based on the most recent 2 months.

The first finding: Kids drink a lot of soda. Forty-three percent of kids drink at least one serving a day while 4% consumed 4 or more.

Secondly, there were significant behavioral problems associated with soft drink consumption. Children who drank 4 or more per day were more likely to have aggressive behaviors, including destroying things belonging to others, getting into fights and physically attacking people. There were also more attention problems more common in kids who drank sodas over those who did not.

This study was the first to evaluate aggressiveness in young kids, but not the first to link soda consumption with behavior issues in children overall. A 2011 study in the journal Injury Prevention found that teens who drank more than five cans of soft drinks per week were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon and acted violently toward peers, family members and dates.

Soft drink consumption has also been linked to physical problems in both children and adults – even beyond the most obvious: obesity from the excess sugar and calorie intake. A study in the Journal of Hepatology finds a strong relationship between soda drinking and fatty liver disease. A separate study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consumption of carbonated colas was associated with reduced bone mineral density, leading to osteoporosis.

Soda and soft drinks are linked to asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The risk of pancreatic cancer could increase two-fold with the consumption of soft drinks.

Even diet soda carries risk, as a study finds that those drinking even calorie-free sodas were at a greater risk for stroke, heart attack or dying from a vascular event.

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There are many healthy alternatives to sodas that both kids and adults will love to drink:

1. Flavored Waters: Make your own by adding your favorite fruits and veggies to a pitcher of ice cold water. Just some of the options: lemons, oranges, watermelon, cucumber, mint, limes.
2. Green Tea: Studies associate green tea consumption with reducing the risk of several types of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, kidney stones, and even cavities.
3. Juice plus seltzer: 100% fruit juice is a great soda alternative, but if you want fewer calories plus some of the bubbly you are missing from soft drinks, try mixing juice and seltzer. A thick, tart juice such as cranberry, pomegranate or grape makes a great base for a refreshing beverage.
4. Cold water plus stevia: If plain water is too boring, try mixing in some calorie-free stevia sweetener.
5. Tonic and Lime: The kids probably won’t like this one, but it makes a refreshing summer non-alcoholic drinks for the grownups. Just add a few slices of lemon or lime and a sprig of fresh mint to tonic. Remember that many brands of tonic contain high fructose corn syrup, so opt for a diet tonic instead.
6. Vegetable juice: In addition to the health benefits you are achieving from skipping soda, you are adding vegetables! Remember, though, that veggie juice can be high in sodium, so opt for a low-sodium version. With the summer and fall bounty of vegetables, you can also try your hand at juicing your own and making unique combinations. Add some fruit too, to make the juice a little sweeter.
7. Milk: Remember milk? Kids today don’t drink as much milk as we did when we were kids. Low milk consumption plus soft drinks make for poor bone health in both kids and adults. There are also great alternatives to cow’s milk for those who are vegetarian/vegan or who are lactose intolerant (or milk allergic). Try soy milk, which may help reduce the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

Journal References:

Shakira F. Suglia, ScD, Sara Solnick, PhD, and David Hemenway, PhD “Soft Drinks Consumption Is Associated with Behavior Problems in 5-Year-Olds,” The Journal of Pediatrics (www.jpeds.com), DOI 10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.06.023, published by Elsevier.

Abid A et al. Soft drink consumption is associated with NAFLD independent of metabolic syndrome. Journal of Hepatology 2009 Nov; 51(5):918-24

Tucker KL et al. Colas, but not other carbonated beverages, are associated with low bone mineral density in older women: The Framingham Osteoporosis Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006 Oct; 84(4): 936-42

Shi Z, et al "Association between soft drink consumption and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among adults in Australia" Respirol 2012; 17: 363-369. January, 2012

Mark A. Pereira et al. Soft Drink and Juice Consumption and Risk of Pancreatic Cancer: The Singapore Chinese Health Study. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-09-0862Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers PrevFebruary 2010 19; 447

Gardener H et al. “Diet soft drink consumption is associated with an increased risk of vascular events in the Northern Manhattan Study.” Journal of General Internal Medicine: DOI 10.1007/s11606-011-1968-2

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