It’s easy to overlook, but choosing healthier drinks is a key part of getting a balanced diet.
Many soft drinks – including instant powdered drinks and hot chocolate – are high in sugar. Food and drinks that are high in sugar are often high in calories, and having too many calories can make you more likely to gain weight.
Some energy drinks are high in both sugar and caffeine. Checking the nutrition labels on soft drinks such as fruit juices and fizzy drinks can help you make healthier choices.
The Eatwell Guide says we should drink six to eight glasses of fluid a day. Water, lower fat milk and sugar-free drinks including tea and coffee all count.
For more information, see Food labels.
Drink plenty of water
Water is a healthy and cheap choice for quenching your thirst at any time. It has no calories and contains no sugars that can damage teeth. Plain tea, fruit tea and coffee (without added sugar) can also be healthy.
If you don’t like the taste of plain water, try sparkling water or add a slice of lemon or lime. Or heat the water and infuse a tea bag, some coffee or a slice of lemon. You could also add some no-added-sugar squash or fruit juice for flavour.
Drink semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk
Milk is a good source of calcium, a mineral that helps build and maintain healthy bones. It also contains protein, vitamins and other minerals, and doesn’t cause tooth decay.
For a healthier choice, choose semi-skimmed, 1% fat or skimmed milk. Limit your intake of flavoured milks, milkshakes, condensed milk and milk-based energy or malt drinks – these contain added sugar, which is bad for teeth.
Milk is especially important for young children. They should drink whole milk until they are two years old because they may not get the calories they need from lower-fat milks.
Cows’ milk should not be given as a drink until a baby is one year old as it doesn’t contain the balance of nutrients a baby needs.
From the age of two, children can gradually move to semi-skimmed milk as a main drink as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well.
For more information, see Drinks and cups for children.
Juices, smoothies and 5 A DAY
Fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies contain a variety of vitamins that are good for our health. A small glass of fruit juice counts as one of your recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
But a glass of juice should only ever be one of your portions of 5 A DAY because it doesn’t contain the fibre found in whole fruits and vegetables. Have other types of fruit and vegetables for the other four (or more) portions.
Fruit juice also contains sugar that can damage teeth. It’s best to drink it with a meal because this can help protect teeth. The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugar is contained within the structure of the fruit.
When fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, especially if you drink juice frequently. Even unsweetened fruit juice is sugary, so keep an eye on the amount of fruit juice and smoothies you consume.
The government’s current advice is to limit consumption of fruit/vegetable juices and smoothies to a combined total of 150ml a day.
Fizzy drinks, flavoured waters, and squashes with added sugar
Fizzy drinks, squashes and juice drinks can contain lots of added sugar and very few nutrients, so keep them to a minimum – children should avoid them completely.
Flavoured water drinks can also contain a surprisingly large amount of sugar, so check the label before you buy. Also beware of “juice drinks” as these may not have enough fruit in them to count towards your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
A high sugar content means a drink is also high in calories, which can contribute towards you becoming overweight. Cutting down on these drinks is a good way of reducing the number of calories you consume while not missing out on any nutrients.
Likewise, getting children to drink fewer sugary drinks is a good way of limiting the amount of sugar they consume. Children who drink a lot of sugary drinks are more likely to become overweight.
The added sugar in these drinks also means they can damage teeth. If you do have sugary or fizzy drinks, drinking them with meals can help reduce the damage to teeth.
The best drinks to give children are water and milk.
If you or your children like fizzy drinks, try diluting fruit juice with sparkling water instead. Remember to dilute squashes well to reduce the sugar content in the drink.
Read more about Children and fizzy drinks.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Drinks containing caffeine can temporarily make us feel more alert or less drowsy. Caffeine affects some people more than others, and the effect can depend on how much caffeine you normally consume.
Pregnant women should limit their intake of caffeinated drinks because of their caffeine content. Caffeinated drinks are also unsuitable for toddlers and young children. Drinks that contain high amounts of caffeine include coffee, tea, colas and energy drinks.
Tea and coffee
It’s fine to drink tea and coffee as part of a balanced diet. Bear in mind, though, that caffeinated drinks can make the body produce urine more quickly. Some people are more susceptible to this than others, but it also depends on how much caffeine you have and how often you have it.
If you have problems with urinary continence, cutting down on caffeine by changing to low-caffeine tea and coffee, fruit or herbal teas, or other types of drinks can sometimes help.
If you drink tea or coffee with sugar or you have flavoured syrups in your coffee shop drinks, you could be unwittingly damaging your teeth and adding unhelpful calories to your diet.
A wide variety of tablet or granular artificial sweeteners are available and are safe to consume in your hot drinks. Find out more about artificial sweeteners.
However, many people who choose to cut out sugar from their hot drinks soon become accustomed to the taste.
Energy drinks and caffeine
Energy drinks often contain high levels of caffeine and are often high in sugar (calories). They may also contain other stimulants and sometimes vitamins and minerals or herbal substances.
The caffeine levels in these drinks vary, but there is often around 80mg of caffeine in a small 250ml can. This is the same as two cans of cola or a small mug of coffee.
Caffeine during pregnancy
Pregnant women should have no more than 200mg of caffeine a day. One mug of instant coffee contains around 100mg of caffeine.
High levels of caffeine can result in babies having a low birth weight, which can increase the risk of health problems in later life.
High caffeine levels might also cause miscarriage. Check the labels of energy drinks as they often say the drink is not suitable for children or pregnant women.
For more detail on how much caffeine is safe during pregnancy, see Foods to avoid when pregnant.
Sports drinks can be useful when you’re doing high-level endurance sports and need an energy boost.
But they are no different from any other sugary soft drinks, which means they are high in calories and contribute to tooth decay.
Unless you’re taking part in high-level endurance sports, water is the healthier choice and the best way to replace fluids lost through exercise.