A new study published by the journal Pediatrics warns that sugary beverages are linked to obesity in 4- and 5-year-old children, not just older kids and teens. "I see a lot of families dealing with obesity in my clinic," co-author Rebecca Scharf, MD, told Yahoo! Shine. "Parents associate food with calories and are sometimes surprised that children are getting a lot of calories from beverages."
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As every parent knows, children love eating sweets. In fact, kids are biologically programmed to crave the taste of sugar. Sweet flavors tell the brain to "eat more" (which is one reason why nutritious mother's milk is sweet). Eating more is one thing for a hunter-gatherer scouring the wilderness for sustenance, but for the average sedentary adult or child, it can be a health disaster. Obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, some forms of cancer, and other chronic health problems.
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The study examined data from over 9,600 children from across the United States who were born in 2001. It found that 4- and 5-year-old children who regularly consumed one eight-ounce soda, sports drink, or juice drink with added sugar each day had a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and were 43 percent more likely to be obese than their peers who drank sugary drinks infrequently or not at all. They also drank less milk and were more likely to watch two hours or more of television a day.
The American Beverage Association responded to the research with a written statement, "Overweight and obesity are caused by an imbalance between calories consumed from all foods and beverages (total diet) and calories burned (physical activity). Therefore, it is misleading to suggest that beverage consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain among this group of children, especially at a time in their lives when they would normally gain weight and grow."
While the study acknowledges that many factors that may contribute to obesity, such as lack of regular exercise and inadequate sleep, Scharf points out that consuming sugared soft drinks is a modifiable behavior that is so much easier to combat than, say, a genetic factor.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently put out guidelines limiting the sale of sugary snacks and drinks in school, so it's up to parents to monitor their children's sugar consumption at home. And since young children don't have the ability to purchase drinks and snacks for themselves, the good news is, parents have almost complete control over their diets.
The obvious answer is to hand your child a cup of water when she is thirsty, but for kids and their parents who are accustomed to consuming sweetened beverages, this can be easier said than done. "We are not saying you have to avoid sugar altogether," said Scharf. "But it is something that should be saved for a special occasion." The study's authors also recommend offering your child milk instead of a sugary drink, since it's filling and contains protein and other nutrients.
Jennifer Shu, an Atlanta-based pediatrician and author of "Food Fights", told Yahoo! Shine some families can go cold turkey, and others may need to take a more gradual approach if they aren't succeeding. "I went cold turkey with soda myself on January 2," she said. "With small children, [drinking sweetened beverages] usually starts with 'just a sip,' and then it can be a slippery slope. Little kids see their parents drinking soda and think it's a grown-up thing to do. If you deny it, it becomes a forbidden fruit."
If your child has been drinking soda or juice with added sugars, you can first switch to 100 percent fruit juice. Shu recommends diluting juice to help kids become accustomed to a less sweet taste or adding slices of orange or lemon. After kids have become accustomed to juice, move to whole fruit and plain water. How to make water appealing? Let them choose their own colorful water bottle or fun cup with a built-in straw. Especially for young children, modeled behavior is key. If kids see their parents enjoying plain water, that will eventually become their beverage of choice as well.
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