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The Sugar In Soda: Not So Sweet

Jill Castle

Health, Wellness, & Safety

When I was younger, drinking soda was a treat.  Only allowed when at parties or when out for dinner. And no refills.  The standard soda was a 12- ounce can, or a 10-ounce paper cup from the fast food joint.  I remember the summer between my junior and senior in high school when my best friend introduced me to diet soda (Tab). We were soaking up the sun, poolside.

While we are no longer in the “olden days’, there is some virtue and value to the limits around soda that were commonplace to the everyday diet so many years ago.  Flash forward to the new millennium and see how soda is advertised and accepted as a primary drink for children.  You can find soda in baby bottles, sippy cups, lunch boxes, school vending machines, and stocked in many home refrigerators.  And while soda marketers try even harder to maintain sodas in schools, enlarge the portion sizes, and tempt consumption with child-targeted advertising campaigns, the anti-obesity movement scorns soda and its effects on the weight and health of children.

The sugar in soda

For every teaspoon of sugar eaten (or consumed) you get about 16 calories. That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize how many teaspoons are in a 12 ounce can of regular soda: ~150 calories and 9 teaspoons of sugar.  That’s 150 empty calories. Calories without nutrients like protein, vitamins, or minerals.   Over time, drinking a can of regular soda each day can be a significant source of extra calories and a contributor to excess weight gain.

Here’s a look at some commonly available soda sizes:

20-ounce soda:  250 calories:  17 tsp. sugar (approximately 1/3 cup of sugar)

24-ounce soda:  300 calories:  20 tsp. sugar (1/3 c. sugar)

40-ounce soda (Big Gulp):  ~500 calories:  34 tsp. sugar (about 3/4 cup sugar)

Imagine taking your sugar bowl out of the cabinet and swallowing a cup of sugar!  Would you let your child do that? No, most parents would grab the sugar bowl, put it away, and scold their child for doing something so ludicrous.  Yet, allowing children to consume regular soda, without limits, is not dissimilar.

What about diet sodas?

Diet sodas use artificial sweeteners to mimic the taste of the regular soda product, without the calories.  While use of diet soda can be helpful in the process of reducing regular soda consumption and decreasing calorie intake, routine use of diet soda is not advised for children.

Diet soda contains caffeine (sometimes in higher amounts that regular soda), also, something that is discouraged among children.

How much soda is too much?

If your child is drinking more than 3-4 cans of soda per week, it is time to cut back. Here are some tips to help you change your approach:

  • Change your perspective:  Sodas are a treat and are meant for occasional use. Try a “special occasion rule” to strike the balance.
  • Don’t purchase sodas and bring them into your home (remember, you are the gatekeeper who makes the decisions about what gets purchased, served, and stocked in your home).
  • For the serious soda consumer, start with a switch to diet soda and wean down to 1 can per day.  Aim to reduce your child’s soda drinking to 3-4 cans/week.  Eventually, use soda (diet or regular) on an occasional basis.
  • Use alternatives to soda:  Try water!  Serve iced water, or flavor water with a splash of juice or a squeeze of lemon.  Healthy options such as milk or 100% juice (in recommended amounts) can enhance your child’s overall nutrient intake and be a satisfying drink.


Eliminating or seriously reducing the amount of soda your child is drinking can have a major impact on their health and body weight.  Remember, a child can experience a 10# weight gain in a year, just from the extra calories that a daily can of soda provides.

How much soda is your children and family are consuming?  Have you found some healthy alternatives to soda?

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Jill Castle

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist with expertise in pediatric nutrition. She is the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, and creator of Just the Right Byte, a childhood nutrition blog. Follow Jill on Twitter @pediRD and Facebook.