A Soda a Day Packs the Pounds Away

Study links sugary drink consumption and obesity—in preschoolers.

Study Links Sugary Drink Consumption with Preschool Obesity
Five-year-olds who drink sugar-sweetened beverages regularly are more likely to be obese than those who don't. (Photo: Melissa Lomax Speelman/Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

From the “duh” files comes yet another study linking the consumption of soda and other sweetened beverages to bad things. Except this time, researchers studied the effects sugary beverages have on the bodies of children between two and five years old.

Researchers from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville surveyed the parents of 9,600 children born in 2001 from across the nation, asking questions about their TV-watching habits, socioeconomic level, and children’s consumption of sugary drinks. The completed study, published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics, reported that five-year-old children who drank beverages sweetened by sugar every day were 43 percent more likely to be obese than those who drank the beverages less frequently or not at all.

“Even though sugar-sweetened beverages are relatively a small percentage of the calories that children take in, that additional amount of calories did contribute to more weight gain over time,” Dr. Mark DeBoer, who led the study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told FoxNews.com.

While a correlation between sugary drinks and obesity in children younger than five could not be established from the survey results, the link in the five-year-olds whose parents were surveyed—of which 15 percent were obese—was enough for the study’s authors to recommend that pediatricians and parents discourage sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. The authors also support policy changes that will lower kids’ consumption of these drinks. (More than one-third of children and teens in the U.S. were overweight or obese in 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.)

Nutritionist Lisa R. Young says she’s not surprised by the study linking obesity in children to sugar-sweetened beverages.

“Sugar provides empty calories, and sugary drinks are unnecessary calories which often do not register and help—children or adults—feel full,” Young tells TakePart. “We also usually eat something along with the drink, so it is getting a double dose of calories. This is a huge concern as they are forming habits, and drinking sugary drinks is a bad habit.”

The University of Virginia study was hardly the first to link the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity. Last year, a trio of studies in the New England Journal of Medicine connected sugary drinks and weight gain in adults, and a large Harvard study found that drinking soda leads to weight gain for those already genetically predisposed to obesity.

Predictably, the American Beverage Association, which represents the makers of sugary drinks, responded to the latest “soda study” in an all-too familiar refrain:

“Overweight and obesity are caused by an imbalance between calories consumed from all foods and beverages (total diet) and calories burned (physical activity). Therefore, it is misleading to suggest that beverage consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain among this group of children, especially at a time in their lives when they would normally gain weight and grow.”

Still, many in the health community—including the American Medical Association—are calling for sugary beverages to be taxed at a higher rate than other drinks, à la cigarettes. With that tax money, the AMA supports funding mandatory school lessons for children about the causes, effects and prevention of obesity.

Sadly, for the kids already drinking a soda a day before they start school, that education may be too little, too late.

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