Sugary DrinksPreventing Childhood Obesity

Time to Rethink Our Sugary Drinks

By: Nancy Trout, MD, MPH

Sugar sweetened beverages, including sodas, fruit drinks, sport drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas are contributing to an undue level of poor health. Sugary drinks account for approximately 36% of added sugar in the American diet. Because liquid sugar is processed differently than complex dietary sugars, it can cause damage to the liver and pancreas. Studies show that excess added sugar consumption is linked to many chronic health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, liver disease, obesity and dental caries, and we are seeing some of these diseases more commonly in children.

Consumption of Sugary drinks by children and adolescents remains a significant public health concern. According to the UConn RUDD Center for Food Policy and Obesity, more than 50% of youth drink at least one sugary beverage daily. Consumption is higher among low income, Black and Latino children and teens, and this disproportion contributes to concerning health disparities for people of color.  The beverage industry spends over $1 billion annually marketing sugar sweetened beverages and energy drinks, and they continue to disproportionately target Black and Latino children and teens with their marketing campaigns.

Read the UConn RUDD Center’s report Sugary Drink FACTS 2020.

Fortunately, advances in both nutrition science and policy are beginning to address this public health crisis. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) developed SugarScience, a national evidence-based initiative about the impact of sugar on health. A consensus policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers guidance for beverage consumption in children younger than 5 years old that removes juice and other sugary drinks. Towns such as Berkley, California and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania have instituted sugar sweetened beverage excise taxes, which have been shown to reduce consumption. Hospitals around the country such as Nationwide Children’s, Colorado Children’s, Seattle Children’s, Cleveland Clinic, Rady Children’s Hospital, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center have implemented Healthy Beverage Initiatives. Such initiatives phase out the sale of sugary drinks in their cafeterias, vending machines, and gift shops to promote healthier beverage options that will contribute to the health of their patients, families, visitors, learners, and staff.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has outlined its Healthy People 2030 goals, which include a reduction in the consumption of added sugars by persons 2 years of age and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that sugar sweetened beverages are detrimental to child health. As we take a broader look at the degree to which unhealthy foods and beverages contribute to disease in children, organizations must be aware of the messages and tacit approval they send with the beverages they sell to customers and team members. We must also look for opportunities to implement changes in policy, systems and our environment that not only make consumer choices healthier, but that make them easier as well.

Nancy Trout, MD, MPH is a primary care pediatrician and co-director of Start Childhood Off Right, which is a childhood obesity prevention initiative of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

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