Sweetened Drinks Put Children at Risk for Obesity, Poor Nutrition

JULY 2003 Too much soda and other sugar-filled drinks make children fat. That is the message of a two-month study by nutritionists at Cornell University.

Children who drank more than 12 ounces of sweetened drinks gained significantly more weight than children who drank less than six ounces a day. That's because children do not reduce how much food they eat at meals for the calories they consume in sweetened drinks. The more sweetened drinks they consumed, the greater their daily caloric intake and the greater the weight gain.

The researchers followed 30 children for five days a week for two months for the study, the first to monitor children's daily sweetened drink and food consumption for that long. The survey supports previous findings that excessive sweetened drink consumption adversely affects nutrition and promotes obesity in school-age children, says David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences and of psychology at Cornell. The findings are published in the latest issue (June 2003) of the Journal of Pediatrics.

The researchers define sweetened drinks as soda, fruit punch, bottled tea or drinks made from fruit-flavored powders, such as grape and lemonade.

The researchers also found that the more sweetened beverages the children consume, the less milk they drink because, when offered a choice between sweetened drinks and milk, they choose the sweetened drink and caregivers tend not to offer milk when they serve a sweetened drink as a snack or at a meal. As a result, children who consumed more than 12 ounces of sweetened drinks ingested less calcium and zinc than the recommended amounts.

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The work was part of the Ph.D. dissertation conducted by Gordana Mrdjenovic under Levitsky's direction. The study was conducted on children aged 6 to 12 who attended Cornell's weekday day camp at which breakfast, lunch and two snacks were served. To assess the effects of sweetened drinks on caloric and nutrient intake and weight gain, the researchers prepared the food and recorded what the children ate or drank at the camp. "These findings suggest that sweetened drinks may be a significant factor in the increase in obesity among children in the United States," says Levitsky. "And the fact that these drinks and fruit juice displace milk is dangerous, especially for girls, who need a strong supply of calcium before they mature or they will be at risk for osteoporosis after age 60."

Among the researchers' findings:

  • Children who drank more than 16 ounces a day of sweetened drinks consumed four fewer ounces of milk a day than children who avoided sweetened drinks -- and they obtained 20 percent less phosphorus, 19 percent less protein and magnesium, 16 percent less calcium and 10 percent less vitamin A per day.

  • Children consuming sweetened drinks took in 244 more calories a day than on days when they did not drink these beverages. Their solid food intake on these two occasions varied only by about 2 ounces.

  • Over the two months of the study, children who drank more than 16 ounces a day of sweetened beverages gained an average of 2.5 pounds, compared with a 0.7 to 1 pound gain in children who consumed on average 6 to 16 ounces of sweetened drinks a day.

  • When given a choice between sweetened drinks and milk, children choose the sweetened drink. Caregivers are less likely to serve milk when they also serve sweetened drinks.

Source: Cornell University