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Are Sugary Drinks Making Our Kids Fat?

Study links sugary drinks and juices to obesity in preschoolers.
Photograph by Getty Images

You may want to lay off those juice boxes after what a new study has found...

While it hasn't exactly been a secret that sugary drinks have been padding the waistlines of teens and adults for a while now, researchers are finally taking a hard look at the impact they're having on kids under 5. And the results are pretty eye-opening.

According to the study, which was just published in the journal Pediatrics, kids five and under who drink things like sports drinks, super-sweet juices, and sodas every day are far more likely to be obese than those who don't. And as Columbia University's child health and nutrition expert Dr. Y. Claire Wang told Reuters, the research clearly shows that they are to blame for our larger national problem with weight. "It's definitely one of the major, if not the main, driver in childhood obesity," she said.

Wondering how much harm a cup or two of juice a day could possibly impact weight gain? More than you might think. Dr. Mark DeBoer, who led the study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told Reuters: "Even though sugar-sweetened beverages are relatively a small percentage of the calories that children take in, that additional amount of calories did contribute to more weight gain over time."

DeBoer's study, which spanned several years, examined the lives of 9,600 children who were all born in 2001. The researchers surveyed the parents of each child, checking in when the kids were 2, 4, and 5 years old, and and asking them a wealth of questions about their lifestyle—from their income and education level to how often they give their kids sugary drinks and let them watch TV. They even recorded the weight of each child's mother.

Here's what they turned up:

Of the 9,600 kids surveyed, 9 to 13 percent of them drank at least one sugary drink per day, were more likely to have an overweight mother, and watched at least two hours of TV a day by the age of 4 and 5. They were also 43 percent more likely to be obese than kids in the study who sipped sugary beverages less frequently or not at all.

Naturally, the American Beverage Association is not so thrilled with some of the criticism being hurled at them in wake of the study. As they wrote in a letter to Reuters: "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."

The problem is, not every kid who drinks a huge soda is going to go outside and run around for an hour.

So what's a parent to do? Don't think you have to immediately rid your fridge of everything remotely sugary and never cave when your kid begs unrelentingly for a soda at the movies. As Wang advises, the study's results merely proves (yet again) that old adage "everything in moderation," and suggests you treat sugary drinks as rare treats. And of course, when in doubt, do as your parents did: stick with milk and water.

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