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Please, don't give your child sugar-sweetened beverages

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 24, 2012 12:01 PM

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Please, don't give your child sugar-sweetened beverages.

I'm not saying never--I'm okay with the occasional soda at a restaurant or cup of fruit punch at the party when nothing else is served. But please, don't buy it to pack in snacks or lunches or to have around the house when your kids get thirsty. Give them water, or unsweetened milk, instead.

The reason I'm pleading is that as a pediatrician, I am getting increasingly panicked about childhood obesity. I'm seeing it every day at work--and what makes me panicked is that I can't seem to get anywhere with it. At this point, I'm really happy if patients of mine don't get heavier; an incredibly small number of them actually get slimmer. 

We've known for a while that sugar-sweetened beverages are part of the problem, and this week the New England Journal of Medicine came out with three studies that show exactly that:
  • A study out of Boston Children's Hospital showed that when a group of overweight and obese adolescents cut back on their sugar-sweetened beverages they gained less than a control group that didn't.
  • Researchers in the Netherlands found that when they gave normal-weight kids one can a day of a sugar-sweetened beverage a day, they gained more weight after 18 months than those who got a sugar-free beverage.
  • Data from a big study of nurses shows that when people who have a high genetic risk of obesity drink even just one sugar sweetened beverage a day, they gain even more weight.
Now, getting rid of sugar-sweetened beverages isn't the silver bullet for ending obesity. In all of the studies, everyone gained weight. Those who drank the sugar-sweetened beverages gained more--although,if you read the fine print, not always much more. And the study out of Boston Children's underlined the fact that habits are hard to break: a year after the intervention to cut down on sugar-sweetened beverages (which included not just phone calls and visits but actually shipping sugar-free beverages to their houses), the teens who got the intervention weighed the same as those who didn't.

But getting rid of sugar-sweetened beverages is important. As my colleague Dr. David Ludwig says, we were meant to eat our calories, not drink them. Our bodies just don't seem to register the calories when they come in as liquid--if we ate something with the same amount of calories as that big cup of soda, we'd feel full. But after the big soda, we're reaching for fries. Whether or not your child is overweight (to find out, check out the BMI calculator on the website of the Centers for Disease Control), it's not good to take in more calories than we need.

It's also simple. Compared to getting your kid to exercise an hour a day or shut off the TV, talking them into drinking water (or flavored water or unsweetened milk) instead of soda or fruit punch isn't all that hard. Please, as someone who is watching the childhood obesity epidemic play out day after day, I'm begging you: don't give your child sugar-sweetened beverages.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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