The lure of diet soda as a “healthy” alternative for children

Sally wants to make healthy choices for her overweight children so she decides to swap regular sugar sodas for artificially sweetened, zero-calorie diet sodas. Unfortunately, she notices that they start to drink more diet sodas and their weights continue to slowly increase. She wonders why this change did not have the effect she thought it would.

Many families are struggling to find a solution to children who are either overweight or obese. Since obesity is a nutritional disorder, it is important to understand what is happening so that it can be corrected. If not corrected, obesity can lead to shorter lifespans, increased risk of some cancers, low self-esteem and other emotional and psychological issues such as behavioral problems, depression or eating disorders.

To help their children, many parents try to provide a healthy diet and make better food choices. This can include reducing sugary beverages, such a sodas. As a replacement for sweetened drinks, some parents substitute sodas with sugar for sodas sweetened with artificial sweeteners (diet sodas) thinking that this will help reduce the number of calories their child is consuming and lead to weight loss. However, new research is showing that artificially sweetened, zero-calorie beverages may not have that anticipated effect in children.

When children drink artificially sweetened beverages, it may stimulate their appetites and actually cause them to consume more food. For some children, drinking a sweet tasting beverage actually makes them more hungry. Since there are no calories coming into the body from the diet beverage, their body seeks energy from food so they end up eating more than normal. This means that they are drinking fewer calories but consuming more calories from food. Over time, the number of calories consumed by the child is more than their body’s energy needs and they end up gaining weight.

There are other zero calorie options beyond artificially sweetened diet sodas. Water is the perfect zero calorie beverage for children. Water is low-cost and available nearly everywhere. Parents can easily substitute sugary beverages with water at home, when eating out, or when traveling. Giving one glass of water in place of a sugary beverage helps children maintain their weight with no negative side effects that may occur with drinking artificially sweetened beverages.

The issue of overweight and obese children is a complicated topic that does not have one simple answer. However, there are some simple actions you can take to help your child maintain a healthy weight or help them move towards a more healthy weight. The key is to practice these actions as frequently as possible:

  • Offer 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day
  • Limit screen time to less than 2 hours daily
  • Engage in physical play for at least 1 hour each day
  • Limit the consumption of sugary beverages
  • Encourage and increase water consumption

Both parents and children will feel healthier and better if these activities are done as a family most day of the week.

Having an overweight or obese child is stressful for the entire family. Focusing on the causes and making small but meaningful changes can help families meet their goals. Although drinking artificially sweetened beverages, zero-calorie may seem like a good idea to help children control their weight it may not have the intended results. Focusing on drinking water, increasing activity, reducing inactivity, and eating a balanced diet will result will lead to greater success.

Sources:

Harvard School of Public Health. (2018). Artificial sweetners. Accessed from: https://hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/artificialsweeteners/. Accessed November 20, 2018.

Katan, M. de Ruyter, J., Kuijper, L., Chow, C., Hall, K., & Olthof, M. (2016). Impact of masked replacement of sugar-sweetened with sugar-free beverages on body weight increases with initial BMI: Secondary analysis of data from an 18 month double-blind trial in children. Plos One, 11(7), e0159771.

Laverty, A., Magee, L, Monteiro, C., Sazena, S., & Millett, C. (2015). Sugar and artificially sweetened beverage consumption and adiposity changes: National longitudinal study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 12, pp. 137-147.

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About the instructor
Proactive Parenting
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.

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