You Can't Blame it All on Soda

Childhood obesity and sweet drinks have only a weak link

(RxWiki News) Soft drinks have been under fire lately for being a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic among children. But some of that concern may be misplaced.

A recent Canadian study of children found little evidence to support the idea that sweet drinks full of sugar are an important enough factor to change a child's risk of obesity when other factors are taken into account.

"Water is the best thing you can drink."

Susan Whiting and colleagues at the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada examined the relationship between the obesity risk of Canadian children and what they drank.

The study involved 10,038 children between the ages of 2 to 18. The children or their parents were asked to recall what they had to drink in the previous 24 hours, and the children's height and weight were measured.

The authors analyzed children's consumption of soft drinks and other sweet drinks alongside socioeconomics, ethnicity, household income and food security, which refers to how much access the children have to food or whether they sometimes go hungry.

The drinks included in the study were fruit-flavored drinks, soft drinks, lemonades, sweetened coffees or tea and drinks with less than 100 percent fruit juice.

The researchers split the children in the study into groups based on age and gender to get a sense of whether any links between sweetened beverages and obesity was different by age or sex.

The age groups included 2 to 5 years old, 6 to 11 and 12 to 18. The only demographic group who showed a greater risk of obesity that corresponded to a higher intake of soft drinks were boys between the ages of 6 to 11.

Among these boys, those who drank mostly soft drinks (553 g) were a little more than twice as likely to be overweight those who only moderately drank soft drinks (about 23 g). Other groups showed no strong link between drinking habits and weight.

"We found sweetened drinks to be dominant beverages during childhood, but saw no consistent association between beverage intake patterns and overweight and obesity," the authors wrote.

The factors playing the biggest part in a child's risk of becoming obese were household income, the child's ethnicity and the household's food security.

The study does not prove that soft drinks and other sugary drinks have no impact on children's weight, but the evidence does not show a strong enough correlation between the two.

As registered dietician Eve Pearson points out, sugary drinks may be common in childhood, but a child who drinks a sweet beverage should be burning off those calories with physical activity.

"As a child, I grew up on Kool-Aid.  There was two cups of sugar in every container I drank," Pearson said.  "I also played outside several hours each day and participated in sports at school."

"The difference today is the kids are drinking these extra calories (added to the poor food choices that sometimes come with low income addressed in this study) but they are not near as active to burn these extra calories," she said. "The childhood obesity problem can't be blamed on one entity because there are so many contributors."

The study was limited by the fact that it used data based on recalled information from the children or parents, and it's unclear whether the same pattern would emerge among US children. It also looked at the children's current weight, so a more long-term study could provide better information about how drinking habits affect a child's long-term risk of becoming obese.

The study was published online June 14 in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

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Review Date: 
June 19, 2012