People have become more aware in recent years that obesity is a problem and many have tried to cut down eating fried or high-calorie foods. One thing that they might not be as aware of is how many calories are contained in their sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).

Eliminating these drinks from your own or your child’s day※or limiting them to being “treats†not routine※will have a real impact on calorie consumption and overall health.

We interviewed nutritionist Mary Lynch, RD, LDN from the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, a Community Health Center, to find out more about the effects sugar-sweetened beverages have on our bodies and about an innovative program at the Dorchester House to help improve parents’ awareness of their families’ diet in order to improve their health.

Why are sugar-sweetened beverages so harmful?

The issue is that they are so prevalent in the diet and therefore, are displacing other healthier choices. Sugar-sweetened beverages provide huge amounts of calories that people, especially children, don’t need. Children drink these sugary drinks instead of milk or water.

They are “empty calories†without nutritional benefits. Initially, concerns were about these drinks contributing to tooth decay. Now they are making children overweight. An overweight child has a strong chance of becoming an overweight adult, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer.

What are “empty calories�

They are in foods that provide calories and nothing else: no vitamins or other nutrients like fiber, nothing that will benefit the body. These calories are provided by the sugars contained in these beverages.

Sugar can be disguised in many forms or have different names※get to know them:

• High-fructose corn syrup

• Sucrose

• Corn sweetener

• Fruit juice concentrate

• Molasses

• Cane sugar

• Raw sugar

• Maple syrup

• Honey

In what ways are sugary beverages being linked to obesity?

Our consumption of calories from these beverages has increased dramatically in the past 40 years, as has the obesity rate. They hurt us twice: We drink these empty calories, which don’t fill us up; and we don’t adjust our intake because we just drank 500 calories of soda, and so we eat the same amount of food on top of those calories. Therefore we have an intake of extra calories we don’t need and don’t “feel.â€

What are the recommended limits of daily amounts of sugar intake for kids and adults?

The upper limits suggested for children are about four teaspoons of sugar a day, around 6.5 teaspoons for women and 10 for men. Most people exceed that because sugar comes in many of the foods that we eat※in our cereals, drinks, pastries, cookies, some breads, and sometimes we add it to foods, too. And of course it’s in candy and sweets.

What are some healthy alternatives to sugary beverages?

Water or one-half cup of freshly squeezed or of 100% juice per day for children and no more than eight ounces for adults. In overweight children we try to eliminate juice altogether. Parents can try putting fruit flavors in water (a clear pitcher with water and oranges and lemons). Zero-calorie drinks are also an alternative as well as unsweetened iced tea, herbal tea, and 1% or fat-free milk.

Why is it so hard to change behaviors or break the sugar habit?

Changing behavior is difficult. Sugar tastes good. Even babies prefer the taste of something sweet over something savory. Once we get used to eating sweet things it becomes a habit, and it is hard to change.

Beware of Marketing and Media!

Media and marketing have a huge influence on children. When you think about children and the amount of food ads the average TV viewer sees in a year, there are over 5000 food ads a year for young children and about 8000 food ads a year for 8 year olds.

A 30-second ad can influence a child’s food choices greatly. We think about marketing and product placement as well. Vending machines are everywhere. All of these things have an influence on how we eat and what we choose to consume. To overcome this, parents could limit TV viewing. Current guidelines are to reduce screen time to no more than two hours a day and this will automatically limit the amount of advertising that children get. Parents could also mute commercials or record programs and forward through them so that you can skip the ads. Once your child is old enough, you can educate him or her to see where these ads and messages are placed. Reading food labels and understanding better what we are eating can help parents to make better choices for their families.

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