Experts agree: Sugary drinks are a big factor in childhood obesity. Even if you’re not giving soda to your baby or preschooler (good call), serving juice is not much better. Parents assume it’s healthy because it comes from fruit or fall victim to clever marketing tricks.
“Juice has this healthy halo around it. Many people think it is a healthy drink, but in reality it is full of sugar,” says Strong4Life registered dietitian Katherine Shary. Here’s why you should dump the sweet stuff.
For starters, there’s the concentrated sugar. Even 100% juice typically contains as much sugar as—if not more than—an equal serving of soda. Then there’s the lack of healthy fiber. “Fiber is great because it helps keep you regular, it helps your body regulate blood sugar levels (so you don’t have that spike and then drop),” says Shary, “and it makes you feel fuller longer.”
Beyond obesity concerns, there are plenty of reasons to skip juice. All that sugar sitting on your child’s teeth can lead to cavities. Especially in babies, fruit juice can cause diarrhea and diaper rash. Plus, juice often contains preservatives to extend its shelf life.
Juice can also influence impressionable taste buds, acting as a “gateway beverage” to sodas and other sweet drinks. Eating whole fruits and vegetables offers developmental benefits as kids get exposed to different textures, develop their motor skills needed to feed themselves and chew, and learn to taste the seeds and pulp.
Beware of phrases like “100% juice,” “organic juice,” “no sugar added” or “no high fructose corn syrup” on labels. Organic juice, after all, still contains the same amount of sugar as non-organic juice. One-hundred percent fruit juice still has too much sugar and no fiber. “Parents want to do the best they can for their child, and marketers know this. They know that if they put those key words out there, it will draw the parent to them,” says Shary. Get the real story by turning the package over and looking at the nutrition facts.
While some juices are fortified with vitamin D and calcium (another marketing trick, says Shary), those nutrients are available in pure form in foods. Get calcium from dairy products, such as yogurt, cottage cheese or milk, as well as from vegetables (broccoli is a great source). Fish and egg yolks are good sources of vitamin D.
You might think of orange juice as a healthy way to get vitamin C, but you’re better off eating a whole orange, which offers nutritious fiber. (A big bag of them probably costs less than a carton of OJ, too.)
The best drinks for kids include water and milk. Sub out fruit juice with fiber-rich whole fruit. (One medium-size apple contains 4 grams of fiber, while a serving of juice typically contains 0.)
If you’re worried about vitamins, focus on giving a good mix of real foods. Preschoolers and young tots are famously picky eaters, so remember that you may have to offer a food 10 to 15 times before your little one will eat it. And while it’s the parent’s job to provide healthy food, it’s the child’s decision to take a bite (or not).
“The most empowering thing is to just say, ‘That’s OK, you don’t have to eat it.’” says Shary.