Study suggests no link between sugary drinks and high calorie intake in children

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The study was presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Children who consume sugary soft drinks are not necessarily heavier than those who steer clear, new research suggests.

A study, presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, found no direct link between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and higher overall energy consumption in four to 10-year-olds.

There were also no significant differences between the body mass indexes (BMI) of children who consumed sugary soft drinks and those who did not.

The study suggests the sugar tax, which came into effect last year, “might not be the most effective tactic” to fight childhood obesity, the researchers said.

The team, from the University of Nottingham, analysed data from a survey of around 1,300 UK children aged four to 10, between 2008 and 2016, including a four-day food diary.

In total, 61% of the children drank at least one sugary soft drink during this period, but more than three-quarters (78%) of this group did not exceed their total recommended daily calorie intake.

There were no significant differences in the BMIs of drinkers and non-drinkers, the authors said.

Overall, 78% of the children consumed more than the recommended daily amount of added sugars, including that found in fruit juices and confectionery, the study also found.

This figure was 68% among drinkers of sugar-sweetened beverages.

“High intake of added sugars was not directly correlated with high energy consumption,” Ola Anabtawi, who led the research, said.

“Therefore, relying on a single-nutrient approach to tackling childhood obesity in the form of a soft drink tax might not be the most effective tactic.”

She added: “Our findings indicate that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages is not a behaviour particular to children with a higher body weight.

“On the contrary, framing sugar reduction in tackling obesity might reinforce negative stereotypes around ‘unhealthy dieting’.

“Instead, policies should focus on those children whose consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks substantially increases their total added sugar intake in combination with other public health interventions.”

Commenting on the findings, Dr Katarina Kos, from the University of Exeter, warned the effects of sugar intake may only become apparent among children in later life.

“The study should not be seen as reassurance that we can relax about sugar-sweetened drinks, but as the authors also say, it highlights the complexity of environment,” she said.

“Children do exercise less than they used to, thus need fewer calories and less energy, whatever the source.”

Matt Lambert, nutritionist at World Cancer Research Fund, said: “While consumption of sugary drinks was not shown to be a factor for weight gain in this particular study, this is typically because children who consume more sugary drinks eat less healthy foods as they are full from the ‘empty calories’ of the sugar-sweetened drinks, which are usually devoid of essential nutrients.

“It is clear that drinking sugary drinks is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to weight gain.

“The over-consumption of fast foods and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle are all other important factors, and a broad range of complementary policies will be needed to see a decline in childhood obesity rates.”

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