Beverage Choices Within a Healthy Eating Pattern for Youth

By Gail Frank, DrPH, MPH, RD, CHES
Beverage Choices Within a Healthy Eating Pattern
Calories from beverages are generally not considered when individuals think about the total number of calories they consume in a day. Beverage calories help to define, however, one’s eating pattern.
September 20, 2016

Calories from beverages are generally not considered when individuals think about the total number of calories they consume in a day. Beverage calories help to define, however, one’s eating pattern.  

The ‘2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ suggest that individuals consume an eating pattern which is low in added sugars.  Preferred beverages are those that are calorie-free - especially water - or those that contribute beneficial nutrients, such as fat-free and low-fat milk and 100% juice.

With water being the most go-to beverage, other commonly consumed ones for adults are sugar-sweetened and diet soda, milk and flavored milk, alcoholic drinks , fruit and vegetable juices, tea and coffee. 

These beverages vary in their nutrient and calorie content. Some, like water, do not contain any calories unless flavored or sweetened. Some, like regular soda, have calories but little nutritional value. Milk, fruit and vegetable juices contain important nutrients such as protein and calcium in milk and potassium, vitamins and minerals in juices.

The most overlooked and overconsumed nutrient is calories.  National surveys show beverages providing almost 20% of the daily caloric intake.  The recommended cap is 10% for calories from alcohol, added sugars and saturated fat combined!  Looking at all the beverages, the largest infusion of calories comes from sweetened ones, including regular soda, compared to other drinks.  Sweetened beverages like soda account for 35% of calories from beverages. 

How can an individual stay within a healthy pattern - healthy in terms of total calories - and be smart about their beverage choices?   One option is to reduce the calories from beverages. Water stands out as a zero calorie drink, but milk and 100% juice are meal and snack favorites. 

When parents choose soda as their preferred beverage, this leaves an impression on their children.  Parents may be drinking diet sodas purposely to keep their calories and body weight down, but they may shy from letting youth drink them because they believe ingredients in diet sodas are not safe.  Science does not support this parental conclusion.  And, on the other hand, in 2009-2012, 65% of adult females and 73% of adult males were overweight or obese. During that same time nearly one in three youth ages 2 to 19 years were overweight or obese.

Youth model their parent’s behavior at home as well as in the market place.  The youngest Millennials and the oldest Generation Z are independent consumers making their own beverage choices in a variety of daily food settings.  If sodas are part of family’s meals and snacks, youth will choose those beverages when they are making their own choices outside their home.  Diet sodas should be considered and not avoided in the family setting. They give teenagers a less harmful social beverage than alcoholic beverages. They fit into a healthy eating pattern when limited in quantity. 

Sodas don’t provide nutrients and should not be the only beverage youth drink, but, if drunk, diet soda will neither be contributing to excessive calories nor adding to a high sugar intake.  

Science supports the safety and FDA approves the use of low calorie sweeteners.  In the context of a healthy diet for youth, no-calorie sodas fit, keeping excess calories from sugar low.

Reference: 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.






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