Sugary Beverages a Major Culprit in Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Sep. 30, 2010
40% of calories in children’s diets are empty calories

Empty calories now make up about 40 percent of the energy consumed by children in the United States, according to new research published today in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. A large percentage of those empty calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks, such as fruit juice and soda, which have little to no nutritional value.

“These statistics are very concerning for the future health of children, especially in terms of their potential for developing heart disease early in life due to childhood obesity,” said Rae-Ellen Kavey, M.D., M.P.H., professor of Pediatrics, University of Rochester Medical Center, and author of an editorial accompanying the article which was published today in JADA.“We all develop our food preferences in childhood. Children who drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages including fruit juice are at risk to develop obesity and will find it hard to break the habit of consuming these empty calories in the future.”

The top five sources of calories for children are grain-based desserts, such as cookies, pizza, soda, yeast breads and chicken, adding up to about 40 percent of the diet, according to a new study, published today in JADA. Between 1989 and 1991, children consumed about 6.5 percent of their calories from sugar-sweetened drinks, according to an analysis of the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals. The current study shows that children now consume more than 11 percent of their calories from sugary drinks. Kavey said the increase in empty calories coming from drinks is particularly concerning because liquid calories don’t satisfy hunger as well as other foods, causing children to consume even more calories.

Because of excessive weight gain associated with high consumption of sugary drinks, children who develop obesity are at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and consequently, early cardiovascular disease, Kavey said. She suggests that children between 2- and 18 years-old drink mainly water or skim milk, and that the benefits of fruits and vegetables are better consumed in solid form than as juice. Children who are always offered water or milk will carry those taste preferences into adulthood, she added.

“While sugar-sweetened beverages are not the only factor in the childhood obesity epidemic, they are a major contributing factor and families can work to cut them out of their diets themselves,” Kavey said. “Families who need more assistance tackling their calorie-consumption issues, should talk to their primary care provider and, if needed, enlist the help of a registered dietician.”