Is what they’re drinking making our kids fat?

Eating well - July 2005


Virginia Van Vynckt


I was reminded of that question recently when my daughter ordered cola at a restaurant. She got a tall glass that held at least 16 ounces. She’d barely finished half when the waitress brought another. Fortunately, my daughter isn’t overly enamored of soda. But many kids, my son included, would have no problem chugging a quart of glorified sugar water in one sitting.

Recently, high-fructose corn syrup, used in most sweetened beverages and other food products, has come under scrutiny from some researchers who think it may pose more of a problem to our health than plain sugar. They believe the overconsumption of high-fructose corn syrup, especially in soft drinks, may be a major factor in the rise of childhood obesity.

One researcher, Peter J. Havel, of the University of California at Davis, says the body metabolizes fructose and glucose differently. Glucose causes insulin and leptin (an appetite-suppressing hormone) levels to rise and ghrelin (a hormone that helps regulate food intake) levels to fall. Fructose doesn’t do that, and consuming too much of it, Havel theorizes, might contribute to weight gain the same way the eating too much fat does.

The studies involved pure fructose, not high-fructose corn syrup, which is fructose and glucose. Most used animals; few human studies have been done, and Havel says more research is needed.

High-fructose corn syrup yields roughly the same amount of fructose as table sugar (sucrose), which breaks down about 50-50 into glucose and fructose in the body. This sweetener is called “high-fructose” to distinguish it from regular corn syrup—all glucose. The high-fructose corn syrup used in most sodas contains 55 percent fructose.

Michael Jacobson, director of the consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, considers all regular soft drinks unhealthy, regardless of the type of sugar used, but doesn’t think high-fructose syrup poses a particular threat.

The real problem with soft drinks may lie elsewhere. A Purdue University study of 15 healthy people showed when they added 450 calories’ of jelly beans to their diets, they ate less of other foods. That didn’t happen when they added 450 calories of sweetened drinks—they gained weight. The researchers speculate sugary liquids do not make people feel as full as sugary foods do. Other surveys linked overconsumption of sweetened beverages to obesity.

The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10 percent of our daily calories come from sugar, though many American kids are closer to 20 percent. The average 12-ounce can of soda has 150 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar—and a lot of kids are drinking 20-ounce bottles.

Aim for moderation

Sugary drinks also promote tooth decay. Soda is especially hard on teeth because in addition to sugar, it contains a lot of acid, which can erode tooth enamel (the outer coating on the tooth).

A recent study showed some noncarbonated acidic beverages, including sports drinks, canned iced tea and bottled lemonade, are even worse than soft drinks in their effect on tooth enamel.

According to the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics:

n No soft drinks for kids under 30 months.

n Serve soft drinks in cans, not bottles. Cans cannot be recapped. This may be more wasteful, but it means the child is likely to drink less.

n Serve sugary drinks and foods at meals, not in between.

n Emphasize whole fruit over fruit juice.

n Encourage kids to drink water. If you serve juice, use 100 percent fruit juice (no added sugar) and limit it to 4 to 6 ounces a day for kids ages 1 to 6; 8 to 12 ounces for kids 7 to 18. Discourage soft drinks. Set an example and avoid soda yourself.

n Serve milk, fruit juice and other sugary drinks in a regular cup, not a sippy cup or bottle, so the liquid is not in constant contact with kids’ teeth.

The bottom line? Soda lacks nutritional value, but keeping it away from your kids altogether is practically impossible. Instead, aim for moderation.

Some soft drink companies sell soda in 8-ounce cans. Because they’re new, some kids think the smaller cans are cool. Take advantage of that.

Another solution is to give kids soft drinks with noncaloric sweeteners. The problem is many parents don’t trust artificial sweeteners. But none of the major health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, has expressed concerns over using aspartame (the most popular, and controversial, sweetener) in moderate amounts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks sucralose (Splenda) is safe, but says to avoid acesulfame-K (Sunette), saccharin and stevia. 

Iced tea is another option. But the bottled kind has as much sugar as soda. So I use fruit-flavored tea. Even if my son adds a tablespoon of sugar, he’s getting less sugar than in a 12-ounce can of soda.

Another trick (which works only on young kids) is to “cut” fruit juice with water.

And finally, when the waitress brings another bucket of cola to your table, just say “no.”

Virginia Van Vynckt, mother of two, has written extensively about food and nutrition, and is the author of Feed Your Kids Right the Lazy Way.

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