Anyone who has ever dieted before knows that in order to start shedding the pounds, you have to pass up the sweets. Studies abound with links between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) and increases in body mass index (BMI) in adults, teenagers, and even preteens. Until recently, however, the evidence on younger children was scant.
Previous studies have been poorly designed, due to small sample size among other factors, but the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey evaluated a nationally representative sample of almost 10,000 children. Mark DeBoer, a pediatric doctor at the University of Virginia, created the study to examine the relationship between SSB consumption and BMI. BMI is a measurement that is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters. For example, someone who is six feet tall (1.82 meters) and weighs 150 pounds (68.04 kilograms) would have a BMI of 20.5.
Although the boundaries are not rigid, a BMI between 18.5 and 25 is considered normal, while a BMI between 25 and 30 is overweight, and a BMI above 30 is considered obese. Calculated measurements can be unreliable because muscle weighs more than fat, and on paper a very fit person may actually seem overweight. However, since this study focused on children, who presumably have very little muscle, the recorded values can be regarded as valuable indicators for body shape.
The survey focused on children of ages two, four and five. Parents answered questions about consumption of SSBs – defined as soda, sports drinks, and fruit drinks that were less than 100% fruit juice. They indicated whether drinks were consumed during mealtime or other times throughout the day, and also marked whether their child drank these beverages regularly, infrequently or not at all.
DeBoer found that children who drank more than one serving of sugary drinks per day had a greater increase in BMI scores from ages two to four when compared with infrequent/non-drinkers. They also discovered that a greater proportion of children drinking at least one serving a day had mothers who were overweight or obese. In addition, black and Hispanic children drank more servings of sugary drink per day as a whole, as did children coming from families of lower socioeconomic status.
The researchers note that weight gain occurs when the intake of calories exceeds the amount burned during activity. In other words, consumption is only half the story. However, the team also found that 4 and 5-year-olds who drank more than one serving of sugary beverages were most likely to watch more than two hours of television a day. The high sugar diet combined with inactivity paints a more comprehensive picture explaining BMI increases in these two groups.
DeBoer describes a multifaceted campaign, containing governmental, corporate, and educational components, aimed at decreasing SSB consumption in young children. NYC’s attempted ban on supersized fast food drink still sits fresh in our minds though, and similar efforts at control may meet the same fate.