Cutting Out Soda Curbs Children’s Weight Gain, Studies Show

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Researchers provide the strongest evidence yet that soda and other sugary drinks contribute to the obesity epidemic in children.

The new findings, reported in a trio of studies published online in the New England Journal of Medicine, offer persuasive support for New York City’s first-in-the-nation ban on large-sized soft drinks at restaurants and sports arenas. Critics and the beverage industry immediately cried foul following the passage of the ban, arguing that there was little evidence that such drastic action would change people’s drinking habits — or their waistlines.

But the new research suggests that limiting children’s access to sugary beverages can indeed curb weight gain: one paper found that providing children with water or diet soda as an alternative to full-sugar soft drinks can lead to meaningful drops in children’s fat deposits and weight; another showed that drinking a single no-calorie drink a day, instead of a sugary one, slows weight gain, independent of other behaviors like overeating or failing to exercise. A third study finds that for people who are already genetically predisposed to obesity, drinking sugary sodas can make their weight problem worse.

Taken together, the papers provide the most robust evidence to date that sugary drinks are a significant driver of weight gain.

(MORE: BPA Linked with Obesity in Kids and Teens)

In the first study, led by Janne de Ruyter at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, scientists followed 641 normal-weight schoolchildren ages 4 to 11 years old for 18 months. The students were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one group received an 8-oz. can of a sugar-sweetened fruit drink to consume every day during recess, while the other group got an identical can of an artificially sweetened, calorie-free drink. On weekends, the children were sent home with two cans to drink on Saturday and Sunday. The trial was double-blinded, meaning that neither the children nor the researchers knew who received which beverage; the scientists went to great lengths to work with a soda manufacturer to formulate beverages that tasted the same and were presented in cans that looked the same.

At the end of the 18-month trial, the children drinking the sugar-free beverage had gained less weight, about 14 lb. (6.35 kg) on average vs. 16.25 lb. (7.37 kg) for the sugar-sweetened drink group. What’s more, the sugar-free group also gained 35% less in body fat than the other kids, as measured by an electrical-impedance test that gauges fat accumulation.

The 2-lb. difference in weight gain between the groups may seem small, but it “is highly significant, especially since we are talking about an 8-oz. can,” says the study’s senior author Martijn Katan, emeritus professor of nutrition at the Vrije University Amsterdam. “A small amount of soft drink can shift the prevalence of obesity from something parents don’t need to worry about into an entirely different territory. It also means that if you take away sugar, you can shift the curve away from obesity, as we saw with the children in the sugar-free group.”

Because the study involved a large number of children who were followed over a relatively long period of time and because the it was blinded, Katan says, the results provide the clearest evidence of how drinking sugar-sweetened beverages can affect children’s weight gain. Moreover, the researchers purposefully refrained from counseling the children or their families about good nutrition or the risks of obesity, and did not ask them to change their eating or activity habits in any way. All they varied was one beverage a day. Katan acknowledges that some of the children, just by virtue of being in a study, may have altered their eating habits, but given the size of the study, he says that any amendments made by participants in one group were likely balanced out by parallel changes in the other group.

(MORE: Meet Big Soda — as Bad as Big Tobacco)

In the second study, scientists analyzed genetic data on 33,000 health professionals who answered questions about their diet, including their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, while participating in three large health surveys over many years. Lu Qi, assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and the senior author of the paper, and his colleagues calculated a score for each participant representing his or her genetic vulnerability to obesity, based on 32 genetic markers known to be involved in weight.

People who had higher genetic scores for obesity were more likely to be obese than those who had fewer such genes, and those who drank a lot of soda were also more likely to be obese than those who drank less — but people who had both a high genetic risk for obesity and drank a lot of soda were at much higher risk of being obese than they would have been given either factor alone. In fact, among people with a high number of obesity genes, the risk of obesity was more than twice as great in those consuming the most sugary drinks (at least one serving a day) as in those who consuming the least (less than one serving a month).

(MORE: Study: Obese Kids Have Less Sensitive Taste Buds)

Finally, in the third study, doctors revealed more encouraging evidence that relatively small interventions can alter children’s soda-drinking habits and reduce weight gain. In that trial, led by Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, researchers included 224 overweight or obese teens. For one year, half the group received home deliveries of bottled water and diet drinks and were encouraged to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. The other teens received $50 gift cards to the local supermarket to purchase whatever they wanted.

Before the intervention began, all of the teens reported drinking at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day, but after one year, those getting zero-calorie home deliveries had almost completely switched to downing only sugar-free beverages. They had also gained significantly less weight than those who didn’t receive the deliveries: 3.5 lb. (1.6 kg) vs. 7.7 lb. (3.5 kg) respectively. The control group also ended up consuming fewer sugary beverages by the end of the study, likely because of an overall increase in aggressive public-health messaging about the importance of eating well and exercising.

“These results show that sugary beverages can have an effect on body weight quickly,” says Ludwig, “perhaps more so than any other single food product. We know of no other study where you eliminated one specific category of food and then show a changed body weight at one year.”

(MORE: Are Cesarean Sections Contributing to Childhood Obesity?)

The trend did not persist, however, when the home deliveries ceased. The researchers continued to observe the teens for additional year during which time none received deliveries of no-calorie drinks. Not surprisingly, these teens began to drink more sugar-sweetened beverages and their weight started to creep back up.

That suggests that changing children’s eating and drinking habits isn’t simply a matter of educating them about nutrition and healthy foods. It also requires changing their environment, so that healthier alternatives become both accessible and convenient. “Children and adolescents will readily change their beverage habits if other products are available,” says Ludwig. “As long as we maintain environments of sugar-sweetened beverages where they are ubiquitous, and heavily marketed, it shouldn’t surprise us that they are drinking a lot of them. But if we create an environment that makes alternatives easy and convenient, they will drink those instead.”

That is essentially the idea driving New York City’s controversial ban on large-sized sugary beverages. If jumbo-sized cups aren’t available, then the thinking goes, residents might not consume as many sugary drinks as they currently do.

(MORE: Should Parents Lose Custody of Their Extremely Obese Kids?)

The beverage industry maintains, however, that sugary drinks are only one part of the obesity problem — and that’s certainly true. In a written statement responding to the new studies, the American Beverage Association said, “Studies and opinion pieces that focus solely on sugar-sweetened beverages, or any other single source of calories, do nothing meaningful to help address this serious issue. The fact remains: sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving obesity.” Still, the new results make a strong case that reducing overconsumption of sodas and sugary drinks is a good place to start.

The group further contends that the average American gets about 7% of daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages, and that consumption of these drinks already dropped by 20% between 2001 and ’10. However, youngsters tend to drink more than adults: some studies show that kids get about 15% of their daily calories in liquid form, largely from sodas and 100% fruit juices.

Public-health experts say more should be done to reduce the amount of liquid calories people consume. The new findings suggest that despite criticism about becoming a nanny state, New York City may be on to something with its big-soda ban; experts eagerly await follow-up studies to see if the new policy will have any effect on residents’ waistlines.

The results could reinvigorate efforts to control soda consumption with soda taxes or other restrictions on where the beverages can be sold. “I think we have passed a watershed here,” says Katan about the strength of the data connecting sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity. “The next step will be to see what we can do about it.”

MORE: Obesity in Kids: Three Lifestyle Changes That Help

Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

36 comments
rebisch
rebisch

Here's another reason to cut or severely limit kids' soda consumption: Gout, and no it's not just for grandpa. 

 Gout happens when the uric acid that occurs naturally in the blood gets too thick and crystallizes like thousands of tiny needles in the joints, most commonly devastating the “bunion joint” where the big toe connects into the foot. “The regularly sweetened sodas increase uric acid because of the effect of their large content of high-fructose corn syrup,” according to Dr. Theodore Fields, Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Fields. Fructose is the only carbohydrate known to increase uric acid levels, according to the British Medical Journal, which reported a study in the U.S. and Canada showing that the risk of gout in men was 85 percent higher among those who sucked down two or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day – compared to those who drank less than one per month.

Adolescents are the largest consumers of sugar-sweetened sodas and other beverages, including many fruit juices we think are healthy alternatives. Of adolescents, 62 percent drink at least one sugary beverage per day, representing 39 pounds of sugar per year.

They may be kids now, but uric acid can build up in the joints for years. Men can start having gout in their 20s, says Dr. Fields, although women usually don’t get gout until after menopause (estrogen increases the excretion of uric acid). More on this topic at: http://www.bobbingforanswers.com/gout/

photophem
photophem

What I want to know is why the scientists doing these studies call it "sugar" and "sugary" instead of being factually correct and pointing out that it is high fructose corn syrup that sweetens every single one of these beverages they're talking about.  It is no coincidence that the rate of obesity and diabetes increased with the widespread introduction of high fructose corn syrup as the primary sweetener in most drinks/foods.  No, cane sugar in large amounts isn't good either, but it does not have the same effects.  Sugar is not the culprit here.

Shital Thakkar
Shital Thakkar

It took a study for these jackasses to figure this out? That alone means they aren't smart enough to come up with a solution. BTW, there are plenty of zero calorie alternatives, Like Coke Zero, Pepsi Max, and so on. You can have your your carbonated beverage refreshment WITHOUT the problems. If you start kids out on these, they'll never know the difference.

diabetesdiabeticstipscom
diabetesdiabeticstipscom

 The term 'Diabetics and sugar' is the first  phrase that comes to my mind when reading about sugary drinks although there are other consequence of  sugar intake especially as sugary beverages.I personally would go for freshly- squeezd fruit  juices or better still just plain fruit and water. The main reason for this preference is that the closer consumed food is to its source, the better. http://www.diabetes-diabetics-...

lyzard97
lyzard97

Sure soda contributes to being overweight, but why do these studies never mention nor control for the fact that people who tend to drink lots of sugary soda also tend to have less than healthy diets?  Or talk about all the people who are overweight who never or very rarley drink soda?  I had lots of trouble with my weight as a teean and young adult, but had maybe 2 cans of soda PER YEAR.  I really don't like the stuff.  Yet I also know several people who go through a sixpack a day of non-diet soda who never seem to gain a pound.  Guess why- they don't over do it in any other way.  Its their one chosen vice.

No one thing "is the major cause of obesity" in any age group except over indulgance.  It does not matter one iota what makes up that overindulgance, merely that we are taking in way more calories than we need.  And with kids being kept inside and not getting any exercise even the "recomended" caloric levels are probably too much.

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

oh wow .. it needed a genius to figure out that by eliminating a lbs of sugar a day from the diet of children will prevent them growing fat like balloons... congratulations! 

Jill Louis
Jill Louis

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RobertSF
RobertSF

"That suggests that changing children’s eating and drinking habits isn’t simply a matter of educating them about nutrition and healthy foods."

Do these children have no parents? When I was a kid, we didn't have soda every day. We got a 12-ounce soda when Dad took us to the movies, which was about once a month. We didn't get sweets and snacks every time we whined either. "No," Mom would say. "You'll ruin your appetite, and we're having dinner soon." And desert after dinner was not a daily thing, either.

Ruth Raynor
Ruth Raynor

Exactly. When I was a kid you got soda on special occasions, like birthdays or Christmas. Any other time? Water.

In the words of my mother, "water's good for you. It makes horses strong."

RobertSF
RobertSF

LOL, so true. I remember being as skeptical of "you'll ruin your appetite" as I was of "don't go in the water; you just ate." I didn't think they were true, but those were the days when families weren't democracies.

jeannebodine
jeannebodine like.author.displayName 1 Like

Wait...now we're cool with kids consuming mass quantities of artificial sweeteners during their developmental years?

Who cares about side effects just as long as there are NO FAT KIDS, right?

gekkobear
gekkobear

Step one, count calories for a week or two.  Don't change anything, just count.

Step two, run over the count and figure out what changes you can make for a significant percentage change in your caloric intake.

Step three, make those changes.

Step four, quit the nanny-state control mentality where you have to forcibly make choices for everyone else because you've decided they're not smart enough to think for themselves without your guiding hand controlling them.

Step five, if cutting intake isn't sufficient for your goals; you'll also need to increase exercise to increase burning of calories.

...

This plan has worked brilliantly for me... especially step four.  Which I'm still engaging in now. 

But good luck with instead deciding that all people are stupid and need controlled, and that government is a beneficent and caring organization with no fraud or corruption that is only looking out for your best interests.

I'm sure that'll work out great.  Explain to people that you know they're stupid so you're going to control their choices for their own good.

Who wouldn't support that?

frants48
frants48

I firmly believed that soda contributes to obesity problem, and what's worse, it is the main culprit of developing DIABETES! - Believe me, I used to hang out in Burger King stores and drank countless sodas. And that made me fat and ugly.

Jamie Wilson
Jamie Wilson

Sorry, this is kind of a no-brainer. I switched to sugar-free stuff a long time ago with my kids - even found a palatable sugar-free recipe for sweet tea (the wine of the South.) Anyone who does not realize that a full-sugar soft drink makes you fat probably needs a LOT of nutritional education.

It might help if we set up food stamps and other government food programs so THEY CAN'T BE USED FOR SUGARY FOODS. No full-sugar soft drinks, no Ho-hos, no candy bars, etc. Further, bar their use for snack foods like potato chips. There are plenty of sweet options left after that - ice cream, cake from mixes, stuff like that. With the convenience foods gone, it makes it a lot easier to eat some carrots or a slice of bread instead of whipping up a batch of cupcakes.

But guess what? You can't do that, not because the welfare population would rise up against you, but because the freakin' food lobbies would lose their collective minds. There's a lot of money invested in getting Americans to consume foods and drinks that are bad for them. That's the cold, hard truth.

J__M__M
J__M__M

But the new research suggests that limiting children’s access to sugary beverages can indeed curb weight gain.

Did the old research say otherwise?  Author, please don't answer-- it's a rhetorical question.

We are so screwed.

Karmi
Karmi

Nazis kept the Hitler Youth slim also

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

Wow! I'll bet the next thing we hear is that sky is BLUE!

Shimmana
Shimmana

Here we go with another very obvious conclusion to a study. How could these drinks be good for anyone when they contain sugar, artificial sweetners, and heaven knows what else. Does not take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

Mark F. Buscher
Mark F. Buscher

Wow, soda makes you fat! Who knew? What's next? Drinking large quanities of alcohol can get you drunk?

Ramu Girdaree Jackpersad
Ramu Girdaree Jackpersad

Drunk is better than fat. drink wears out fat is a B1tch that stays with you causing all kinds of problems

BluBlue
BluBlue

 It's not the obviousness of it... it's the fact that you need to pry it away from so many people, including fat people, before they stop drinking it.

It's a crack addiction---- just drink some water people. It's free and won't give you 'betes!

Marty Butler
Marty Butler

Tyranny is a small group getting rich, while millions get sick. Big Soda is a powerful cultural myth - and you're the target market. 

Nathanael Barnard
Nathanael Barnard

How do people get grants for this shit?  No fucking duh you won't gain as much weight if you cut out a drink that is nothing but sugar.

sanchit12
sanchit12

Wow, sugary drinks lead to weight gain? I've never heard this one before.

breindrein
breindrein

So a lot of sugar makes a person fat? Never knew that.

James Tomlinson
James Tomlinson

I think kids are going to gain weight no matter what, because they are growing. I wonder how they took that into account with the study.

kenns29
kenns29

Did you read they compared two groups of kids, and found out one gains more weight than the other. It's the difference in weight gain that matters.

Isabelle Sanders
Isabelle Sanders

 Did you read they compared the two groups of kids, and the additional weight gain for the soda drinkers was two to four pounds averaged out across all the kids over a year. That's hardly a breakthrough.

LukeVA
LukeVA

I didn't realize how much sugar drinks impacted my weight until I changed from regular Coke to Diet Coke at work (one or two cans a day). I lost 5 pounds in the first week. Couldn't believe how easy and impactful that was.

J__M__M
J__M__M

LukeVA, 

We're back!

Sincerely, 

5 pounds

carter44
carter44

Obesity is a symptom, ignorance and laziness is the cause.  Banning something legal will lead to a path of tyranny.  Just soda today but it opens up the precedent of control "for your own good."

sanchit12
sanchit12

though everything at some point must have been legal..... so there's already precedent....