Excess fast foods and processed foods are partly to blame for America's raging obesity epidemic. But in the case of children, there are other factors. Children and teens are taking in more sugary drinks than ever. And, several recent studies now link sweetened drinks to the rise in overweight children.

Parents need to be aware that sodas, other sugar-sweetened beverages and even pure fruit juice pack a caloric punch. And most of these drinks, including soda, are guzzled at home within a parent's sphere of influence.

Sweet drinks on the rise
There is a broad range of fruit drinks, punches, sports drinks, teas, smoothies and other trendy drinks that claim to be healthy but are actually full of sugar (and/or high-fructose corn syrup). Because sugar-sweetened beverages raise blood sugar, they can increase hunger, too. This can lead to eating more and weight gain.

Studies also suggest that sugary drinks put kids at risk not only for obesity but may also contribute to other related health problems such as diabetes.

100 percent juice off the hook
Interestingly enough, researchers have found that there is not a link between drinking 100 percent fruit juice and obesity in children or teens.

In fact, a large study showed that children between the ages of 2 and 11 years old who drank more than six ounces of pure fruit juice a day:

  • Generally ate a more nutritious diet with more whole fruit and vitamins and minerals. They also ate less fat and added sugar than those who did not.
  • Did not drink less milk, a common concern, because of fruit juice intake.

Researchers speculate that one reason for the link between pure juice and better diet is that parents who feed their kids 100 percent fruit juice may be more health-conscious in general. If they limit junk foods and encourage more healthy foods, this may also account for the healthier diets in the 100 percent fruit juice group.

Helpful guidelines
Which drinks are okay and how much is too much for your child? Keep these tips in mind when strolling down the drink aisle:

Know your worst offenders
In addition to soda, avoid or strictly limit drinks such as lemonade and sweetened ice teas, which contain mostly sugar (and/or high-fructose corn syrup) and water. The same goes for juice cocktails, juice-flavored beverages or juice drinks, which are high in sugar with only small (or no) amounts of real juice.

Be a good role model
Parents, take heed. Since most kids get their sugary drinks right at home, aim to strike a balance. Avoid buying these drinks for the house, but let yourself and your kids indulge now and then when you are out.

Don't be fooled by sports drinks
Your kids don't need sports drinks unless they are exercising for at least an hour or more. Though they contain about half the sugar than your average sweet drink, they can still contribute excess needless sugar calories.

Stock fridge with healthy options
It seems clear that sticking with 100 percent juice is your best bet. Pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry, cherry, orange and red grape juice are all good choices. The 100 percent fruit juice blends have also become popular, and combine more than one juice, such as orange, kiwi, peach, strawberry and pineapple. They're also great for smoothies.

Keep juice portions in check
Though healthier, 100 percent fruit juice is still high in natural sugars and should be limited. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children limit 100 percent fruit juice to these quantities:

  • Children ages 1 to 6: 4 to 6 ounces a day
  • Children aged 7 to 18: 8 to 12 ounces a day

Check the label
The nutrition facts panel will tell you exactly how much sugar is in the product, listed in grams. Remember, 4 grams of sugar is equal to one teaspoon. A drink that contains 32 grams of sugar per serving has eight teaspoons of added sugar! And remember, just because the label includes "fruit" doesn't mean it's OK. If it's 100 percent fruit juice, the federal government requires the label to say so.

Water it down
When you buy pure juice, transfer it to a pitcher and add an extra cup or two of water. Or buy frozen juice and add one to two extra cans of water when blending. This is especially helpful if you find your kids (or you) are drinking more than one cup a day. It's also fun to mix a small amount of juice into seltzer for a fizzy, healthy drink.

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Apr. 7, 2011 at 9:57 AM

Yeah my DD is still labeled as overweight. But she doesn't drink soda at all. I always made sure we had actual fruit juice. And she drinks 2% milk. Shes tall for her age, but still a little chubby. I'm not going to lie, she does get some munchies. But not enough to account for being so overweight. She's the kid that actually LIKES to drink water most of the time. Yet still have weight issues.

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