Diet Sodas May Not Help Kids Cut Calories
Kids who favor diet sodas over sugary ones don't consume fewer calories over the course of a day, a new study finds.
And they average 200 more calories daily than their peers who choose water, according to the results of a survey of over 7,000 U.S. children and teens.
Experts said the findings support what's already recommended by groups like the American Heart Association: Ideally, kids should be drinking water instead of sugar-laden beverages -- or artificially sweetened ones.
"Water is best, and we should be promoting it over low-calorie sweetened beverages," said lead researcher Allison Sylvetsky, an assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health, in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, a survey published just last week suggests this could be an uphill battle. On any given day, one in five American youngsters don't drink any water at all, the Penn State researchers found.
That said, the latest results -- published May 2 in the journal Pediatric Obesity -- do not prove that reduced-calorie drinks are bad.
The findings come from a one-time survey, Sylvetsky said, so there are unanswered questions. For example, kids drinking low-cal beverages might have switched from sugary varieties, and were actually consuming fewer calories than they used to. In that case, the beverages would be a positive influence.
Julie Stefanski, a registered dietitian who was not involved in the study, made another point.
"It's possible that the children who are drinking low-calorie beverages are already individuals who prefer a larger quantity of food, and parents were trying to make changes to reduce their overall calorie intake," said Stefanski, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
However, she noted, there is evidence that beverages can sway food choices.
"In some studies in adults, it's been found that artificial sweeteners caused a craving for more sweet foods," Stefanski said. "This isn't an automatic association, but if your taste buds are wired to always expect a sweet sensation, plain water might help to decrease that craving for sweets."
In the survey, the teens were asked to recall what they'd eaten and had to drink the previous day.
Kids who'd had at least 4 ounces of water, and little to no sugary or artificially sweetened drinks, were considered water consumers.
On average, those kids had the lowest calorie intake for the day, and consumed the least amount of sugar and added sugar. In comparison, their peers who had low-calorie sweet drinks -- at least 4 ounces for the day -- consumed 200 more calories, on average.
That put them on par with kids who'd had sugar-sweetened drinks. (Any beverage dubbed sugar-free, diet, light, low-calorie or no-calorie was categorized as a low-calorie sweetened drink.)
On the other hand, kids who drank diet beverages were doing better in some ways, the study found. They consumed less daily sugar for the day -- including added sugars -- than those who drank sugar-sweetened beverages.
So the fact that their calorie intake was the same is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Sylvetsky -- if those calories came from nutritious foods.
"We weren't able to look at overall diet quality," she said. "We'd like to do that in a future study."
The Calorie Control Council, which represents the low-calorie food industry, said the study has too many unknowns to draw conclusions.
"These results do not challenge the existing evidence that [low-calorie sweetened beverages] are one of many helpful tools in weight management and overall calorie reduction," the group said in a statement.
The study did not prove a cause-and-effect link, other diet and lifestyle factors weren't measured, and self-reported results can be biased, the council explained.
Stefanski said it's always important to consider a child's overall diet when deciding whether beverage "swaps" are needed.
But, she stressed, "parents should definitely steer clear of foods or drinks with a lot of added sugar."
If your child turns her nose up at water, Stefanski said, there are ways to "jazz it up" -- like adding lemon, or slices of strawberry or cucumber.
"Younger kids can help to cut up the fruit or vegetables and create their own fancy color combos," she suggested.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice on cutting out added sugars.
SOURCES: Allison Sylvetsky, Ph.D., assistant professor, exercise and nutrition science, George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, Washington, D.C.; Julie Stefanski, R.D.N., M.Ed., spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago; May 2, 2019, statement, Calorie Control Council; May 2, 2019, Pediatric Obesity