Soda Linked to Aggression in Young Children, Study Finds

Photo: Jodie Griggs/Getty ImagesGot a fighting-prone 5-year-old? You might want to consider cutting back on the little one’s soda intake, as a new study has linked young kids’ aggressive behavior with soft-drinks consumption.

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A recent flurry of research has focused on adult soda drinkers, pointing to increased risks of stroke, obesity, kidney damage, and high blood pressure. But this study, published Friday in the Journal of Pediatrics, focused on 5-year-old soda drinkers and behavioral problems, finding that those who drank four or more pops daily were more than twice as likely to attack others, fight with them or destroy their property. (Not a situation to aim for as back-to-school time approaches.)

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“We found that the child’s aggressive behavior score increased with every increase in soft drinks servings per day, which was surprising,” lead researcher Shakira Suglia, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told Yahoo! Shine. While previous studies have linked soft drinks to violent behavior in adolescents, she added, the goal here was to look at their effect on younger kids.

Suglia and colleagues assessed data on nearly 3,000 5-year-olds from a study of the well-being of urban children. In it, mothers reported their child’s level of soft-drink consumption and completed a checklist about their child’s behavior. The researchers found that 43 percent of the children drank at least one serving of soft drinks daily, while 4 percent consumed four or more. “It’s pretty alarming, especially given what we already know about soda,” Suglia noted. “They’re small, and there’s only so much they can take.”

The study found a clear association between aggression—as well as withdrawal and attention problems—and soda consumption, even after adjusting for socio-demographic factors, maternal depression, intimate-partner violence, and paternal incarceration. Still, because it was an observational study, the researchers can’t say that the soda was the cause of the behavior changes; and because the mothers didn’t say whether the soft drinks their children consumed were diet or regular, it’s hard to know why the link is there.

“We can hypothesize that it could be the caffeine, or that it could be the sugar,” Suglia said. “But we really don’t know for sure.”

The idea of soda intake changing children’s behavior is not surprising, noted former pediatrician Marcie Schneider, a physician now specializing in adolescent care in Connecticut, and the author of a 2011 study outlining the dangers of sports drinks for children.

“Other than the obvious reasons that children should stay away from soda—that it rots their teeth, that it has no nutritional value—the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put out a pretty strong statement on caffeine recently,” she told Yahoo! Shine, referring to the official AAP position that adolescents should limit consumption to less than 100 mg, or the amount in one cola, daily. She added that she often sees kids in her practice who are regularly drinking diet soda, which she discourages.

“Every time a kid comes in, we ask what they ate and drank the day before,” Schneider said. “We’re checking for calcium intake. And basically, you try to promote drinking water and low-fat milk. If they say they drank diet soda, I ask, ‘What do you think it’s doing for you?’” If “quenching my thirst” is an answer, she explains that it actually serves to dehydrate, rather than rehydrate, the drinker.

To parents of soda drinkers who would like to get their kids off the stuff, Schneider suggests gradually weaning them from anything containing caffeine. “Because they, just like an adult, are susceptible to caffeine-withdrawal systems, like having headaches, feeling tired and having slowed motor skills,” she said. But most important is educating parents about the dangers of the drinks, and having them make sure that they don’t have cabinets full of diet soda for their own consumption. 

“Because parents are the biggest models kids have,” she said.

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