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Healthy Drinks Matter for Healthy Kids

We know that what kids drink can have a big impact on their health. Earlier this fall, four of the nation’s leading health organizations released recommendations on what kids ages 0 to 5 should and should not drink.

And this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released state-by-state obesity data among children participating in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The nutrition guidelines for WIC includes beverage guidelines for young children. We talked to Megan Lott, deputy director of Healthy Eating Research and lead author of the Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood report, to get her perspective on these latest reports and what the data show. She gave us a breakdown on the findings, why they matter, and the impact they will have on our youngest kids. 

To start, can you give us a quick overview of the Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood report that was released in September?  Why is the report important? 

These new guidelines outline what kids 0 to 5 should and should not drink. It’s important because beverages are a significant source of calories and nutrients in a young child’s diet. What children drink can have a big impact on their health in the long run, and many are not drinking healthy beverages. For example, many infants consume 100% juice before their first birthdays, which can increase their risk for nutrient deficiencies. Even more concerning is the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, with close to half of 2-to-5-year-olds consuming one every day, can increase a child’s risk for obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

To ensure kids grow up healthy we must establish healthy patterns early on. The drink guidelines in this report can help parents and caregivers do that. 

Don’t these recommendations already exist? What’s new about this particular report? 

You’re right, there are many different drink guidelines out there, but there are gaps in either the age ranges covered or the types of beverages discussed. With so many kids’ drinks on the market and no consistent guidelines about which ones are healthy and which are not, it’s easy for parents and caregivers to be left scratching their heads.This new report clears up the confusion by providing clear, consistent, science-based recommendations on what kids ages 0 to 5 should and should not drink. It’s the first time that leading health organizations (the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association) have made consistent recommendations for beverage consumption for this age group. 

What do these organizations recommend? 

The four organizations agree that:

  • Babies from 0-6 months should only drink breast milk or infant formula.
  • In addition to breast milk or infant formula, from 6-12 months a small amount of drinking water should be offered once solid foods are introduced to help babies get familiar with the taste – just a few sips at meal times is all it takes. It’s best for children under 1 to not drink juice. Even 100% fruit juice offers no nutritional benefits over whole fruit.
  • Once a baby turns 1-year-old, it’s time to add whole milk, which has many essential nutrients, along with some plain drinking water for better hydration. A small amount of juice is ok now, but make sure it’s 100% fruit juice to avoid added sugar. Better yet, serve small pieces of real fruit, which is even healthier.
  • From ages 2-5 milk and water are the go-to beverages. Look for milk with less fat than whole milk, like “skim” or “low-fat.” If you choose to serve 100% juice, stick to a small amount, and remember adding water can make a little go a long way!
  • All kids 5 and under should avoid drinking flavored milks, toddler formulas, plant-based/non-dairy milks, caffeinated beverages and sugar- and low-calorie sweetened beverages, as these beverages can be big sources of added sugars in young-children’s diets and provide no unique nutritional value.   

These are general guidelines. Of course, unsweetened and fortified non-dairy milks may be a good choice if a child is allergic to dairy milk, lactose intolerant, or if their family has made specific dietary choices such as abstaining from animal products. We encourage caregivers to consult with their healthcare provider to choose the right milk substitute to ensure that 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 healthy growth and development.

How do these guidelines compare to what is in the WIC food package? For example, doesn’t WIC allow juice?

Great question. Let’s start off by defining WIC. WIC is a federally funded program for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children age 5 and under. It provides families healthy food and nutrition education, among other things that are important to a child’s growth and development. 

The recommendations in our report align with the beverages allowable in the WIC food package. Juice is WIC-eligible, but only pasteurized, unsweetened 100% fruit juice and only for children 1-4 years of age (100% juices are not included in WIC food packages for children under 1 year old). Fruit drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, sports drinks and ades, and other beverages that are not 100% juice are not WIC-eligible. 

Our guidelines do not recommend flavored milk. The WIC program allows the states to choose whether or not to allow flavored milk, however, most do not. In fact, only 6 states allow flavored milk. 

What does the WIC data that was released this month say? What implications does the data have on these recommendations? 

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, between 2010 and 2016, obesity rates among children participating in WIC declined in 41 states and territories. This is encouraging and suggests that changes made to WIC in the last decade may be having a real impact on kids’ health, including nearly half of all infants born in the United States who are covered by WIC. 

We know that the choices people make are based on the choices people have. By making healthy foods and drinks WIC-eligible, we can help millions of parents make healthier choices for their kids. 

What impact do you hope these recommendations have? 

I hope policymakers will look at these guidelines as they consider changes to food packages for WIC and kids meals served in restaurants, such as substituting flavored milk with whole milk or water. 

I would also like for manufacturers to consider these guidelines as they think about how they package things like juice for children (labeling of 100% juice and sizes of juice boxes), which are available to children enrolled in the WIC program.

And of course, I hope these guidelines help parents and caretakers, in early care and education centers, at home, and in doctors’ offices, provide the right beverages to help children grow up at a healthy weight.

Where can I get more information? 

The full guidelines and accompanying technical report can be found at www.healthydrinkshealthykids.org. This site also contains handouts, infographics, and a set of parent-focused one-minute videos, in English and Spanish, covering all the different topics mentioned in the guidelines, such as tips for swapping out sugary drinks and understanding different types of milk. 

The state-by-state WIC data from the CDC can be found elsewhere on this site.


Published on November 21, 2019


Young boy holding a plant.

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