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.