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What role do beverages have in a healthy eating pattern?

Foods in the beverage food group offer a unique package of nutrients.

All beverage choices matter and contribute to total calorie intake and hydration. Focusing on nutrient-dense beverages can help build healthy eating patterns. For example, milk provides many of the nutrients of concern in the American diet, including calcium, vitamin D, potassium and more.

Water and Hydration

Plain water is important for overall hydration and to meet fluid needs. Most of the body’s fluid needs can be met through water and other beverages, but fluids can also come from foods that are eaten.

Water is important to help regulate body temperature, lubricate and cushion joints, protect the spinal cord and other sensitive tissues, and help remove wastes through sweating and other bodily secretions.

Dairy Milk and Plant-Based Beverages

Milk is a nutrient-dense and affordable source of many essential nutrients like protein; calcium; phosphorus; and vitamins A, D, B12, B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B5 (pantothenic acid). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend consuming low-fat or fat-free dairy foods like milk every day to help meet nutrient needs.

With the exception of fortified soy beverages, drinks made with almonds and other nuts, rice or coconuts often contain little to no protein and lack other key nutrients important to support optimal growth. Dairy milk has the most balanced distribution of energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat, coupled with a unique nutrient package that can be difficult to replace in a healthy dietary pattern.

100% Fruit Juice

Though 100% fruit juice provides nutrients similar to whole fruit, it is lower in dietary fiber and can contribute extra calories and sugar when consumed in excess. Meeting fruit intake through whole fruit is preferred in a healthy eating pattern. However, juice can be an important way to meet adequate intake for those who have limited access to fruit.  One cup of 100% fruit juice is equivalent to a serving of fruit. For children and adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting intake of juice to 4 ounces daily for toddlers ages 1–3. For children ages 4–6, fruit juice should be restricted to 4–6 ounces daily; and for children ages 7–18, juice intake should be limited to 8 ounces or 1 cup of the recommended 2 to 2 ½ cups of fruit servings per day.

 Coffee and Tea

Adults in America commonly consume coffee and tea. These beverages contain many health-promoting antioxidants, flavonoids, catechins and other biologically active substances, many of which are still being identified. Coffee and tea can be part of a healthy eating pattern, but the sugars and artificial flavorings commonly added to these beverages should be limited. Beverages that contain caffeine can fit within a healthy dietary pattern for adults when consumed in moderation (no more than 400 mg/day of caffeine or three to five 8-ounce cups/day).

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Sugar-sweetened beverages provide calories with little or no nutritional value. Sugar-sweetened beverages include, but are not limited to, soft drinks, fruit drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, sweetened waters, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee and tea beverages.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet. Evidence shows that regularly consuming sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities and gout, a type of arthritis. Sugar-sweetened beverages should be limited to help maintain a healthy weight, prevent chronic diseases and support an overall healthy eating pattern.

Beverage Patterns and Young Children

Early childhood is a key time to establish healthy dietary patterns, which are important in supporting optimal growth and development and in preventing diet-related chronic diseases. Research shows that what children drink from birth through age 5 can have a big impact on their health since beverages make a significant contribution to dietary intake during this critical period.

Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, developed a consensus statement that provides guidance on beverage intake for young children. The report, Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood: Recommendations From Key National Health and Nutrition Organizations, outlines comprehensive recommendations for beverage consumption consistent with a healthy diet for children from birth to age 5.

The full guidelines and accompanying technical report can be found at healthydrinkshealthykids.org. Looking for a free beverage education handout for adults and parents? Check out Rethink Your Drink, Make Every Sip Count

What Are the Best Drinks to Serve Young Children?

Kristal Shelden, RDN, emphasizes beverage choices children make are as important as food choices.

Watch more
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ReThink Your Drink Tip Sheet

This tip sheet encourages water + milk as primary beverages for children for good health.