The following is a summary of guidelines established by a panel of leading health organizations under the leadership of Health Eating Research.
Research shows that what children drink—from birth through age 5—can have just as big an impact on their health, growth and development as what they eat. That’s why leading medical and nutrition organizations* came together last week to release new nutritional guidelines outlining which drinks are healthy and which drinks are not.
The guidelines, which parents might find to be the most comprehensive and strict to date, say all children under age 5 should primarily drink milk and water and should avoid:
- Flavored milks, e.g., chocolate, strawberry
- Toddler formulas
- Plant-based/non-dairy milks, e.g., almond, rice, oat**
- Caffeinated beverages, e.g., soda, coffee, tea, energy drinks
- Sugar- and low-calorie sweetened beverages
The panel suggests these drinks offer no unique nutritional value beyond eating a balanced diet and sticking to water and milk, but these drinks can be a major source of added sugars and calories.
When it comes to fruit juice, the panel advises young children drink less than a cup of 100% fruit juice per day, but none at all if possible. They also suggest serving fruit instead which can be more nutritious and satisfying. If parents choose to offer fruit juice, it should to be 100% fruit juice in order to avoid added sugar. The panel also recommends adding water to 100% fruit juice to help cut down on sugar.
The new beverage guidelines come at a critical time as childhood obesity and diabetes are at an all-time high, with excess sugar being a major cause. According to the CDC’s most recent numbers, the prevalence of childhood obesity is 18.5% and affects about 13.7 million children and adolescents. This increases the risk of major health issues—including high blood pressure, heart disease and cavities—in childhood and beyond.
“As a pediatrician, I know what a child drinks can be almost as important as what they eat, in terms of a healthy diet. This is especially true for very young children,” says Natalie Muth, MD, who represented the American Academy of Pediatrics on the panel. “We know that children learn what flavors they prefer at a very early age—as young as 9 months—and these preferences can last through childhood and adulthood.”
The panel agrees that these recommendations can help establish positive health early in a child’s development and can lead to better health later on. However, every child is different so parents should still consult a primary care provider to discuss their children’s individual needs. For more details including an age-based guide, visit healthydrinkshealthykids.org.
*Citing the lack of a comprehensive and consistent recommendations, Health Eating Research (HER) convened an expert panel to establish agreed upon recommendations. The four organizations presented were the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AADP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American Heart Association (AHA).
**Evidence indicates that, with the exception of fortified soy milk, many plant-based/non-dairy milk alternatives lack key nutrients found in cow’s milk. Our bodies may not absorb nutrients absorb nutrients in these non-dairy milks as well as they can from dairy milk. However, unsweetened and fortified non-dairy milks may be a good choice if a child is allergic to dairy, lactose intolerant, or in a family that has made specific dietary choices such as abstaining from animal products. Consult a health care provider to choose the right milk substitute to ensure your child is still getting adequate amounts of the key nutrients found in milk such as protein, calcium, and vitamin D, which are essential for health growth and development.