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Low-Calorie Beverages Help Fight Teen Obesity

Breaking News - March 2006 - Week 2

(Mar 8, 2006)

Healthcare in  the News

-- Curbing teen obesity could be as easy as restocking the family fridge with low-calorie drinks that kids choose themselves, a new study finds.

Picture of two young girls, smiling

Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston had 103 teens pick non-caloric drinks they liked, then delivered a supply of those drinks to their home refrigerators.

The result: Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages tumbled by 82 percent over a six-month period, the researchers report in the medical journal Pediatrics.

That quickly translated into real weight loss for heavier teens - a pound a month during the six-month study.

"We are really excited by this line of research," says study lead author Cara Ebbeling, Ph.D., co-director of obesity research in the division of endocrinology at the hospital.

A Simple Strategy

"Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) may have a unique effect on obesity. Simply decreasing SSB consumption seems to be a promising strategy for preventing and treating obesity," says Dr. Ebbeling.

Not only that, Dr. Ebbeling says, but the simplicity of the study - replacing sugary drinks at home with non-caloric drinks that teens like - could serve as a template for future interventions.

"Most interventions to prevent overweight in adolescents take a very comprehensive approach, including decreasing fat intake and increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables," she notes, "but in this study we targeted one behavior."

According to the US Surgeon General, fifteen percent of children between the ages of six and 19 are overweight.

The rate of overweight among American children aged 6 to 19 has been increasing rapidly in recent years, according to federal statistics, from 11 percent in 1994 to 16 percent in 2002. Lack of exercise, high-fat diets, and high-calorie beverage consumption are all thought to be contributing factors.

Hard data on that issue is scarce, Dr. Ebbeling says. Studies show that adolescents obtain half their beverages at home, so the researchers focused on beverages typically found in the family refrigerator.

Low-Cal Beverages Led to Weight Loss

For the study, the teens were divided into two groups.

One group received free, at-home deliveries of non-caloric drinks that they chose, ranging from sugar-free sodas, to non-caloric lemonade and iced tea, to bottled water. Enough was delivered for their families as well.

A control group of teens was not asked to change its consumption of high-calorie beverages.

The teens in the low-calorie beverage group spoke to the researchers several times during the course of the six-month study to change their beverage choices, and to discuss weight-loss issues.

At the end of six months, the teens in the intervention group had reduced their consumption of sugary beverages by 82 percent. The heaviest one-third of the teens lost the equivalent of a pound a month, Dr. Ebbeling says.

"The data is compelling enough to continue this line of research," says Dr. Ebbeling, who is now working on a similar, much larger study that will be funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and the Charles H. Hood Foundation. These groups sponsored this study.

Changing Habits is Key

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said the small study addresses the difficult problem of helping teens improve their dietary habits.

"They [the researchers] made it comfortable for kids to switch their behavior," she says. "They showed the kids that if they changed their beverages they would be just as happy as they would with the SSBs."

Also important was that the study endorsed non-caloric drinks as safe to drink, says Cathy Nonas, director of the obesity and diabetes program at New York City's North General Hospital.

"Parents are afraid to give no-calorie drinks to their children, but the data doesn't say it's going to hurt them," she says.

Dr. Richard Adamson is senior scientific consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association, which represents the manufacturers of soft drinks.

He notes that the study was small, with a subgroup of teens showing a modest weight loss for the length of time of the study. According to Dr. Adamson, similar results could have been accomplished by following a low-fat diet.

Dr. Adamson says the beverage industry promotes calorie-rich products as a refreshment to be consumed in moderation. It also offers a wide variety of drinks, both caloric and non-caloric, and in many portion sizes, he says.

"You can have a variety of drinks, from non-caloric drinks to juices with calories, and can also pick the sizes," he says. "It's up to parents."

It is important to note thata variety of strategies may be used to help teens achieve optimal health.

While non-caloric drinks have been associated with weight loss, nutrient-rich beverages such as milk and fruit juices remain important dietary options for healthy growth and development.

Increasing physical activity to the recommended level of 30 to 60 minutes per day can also help overweight teens to reach a healthy weight.

Always consult your child's physician for more information.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.


Preventing Childhood Obesity

Obesity is a chronic disease affecting increasing numbers of children and adolescents as well as adults.

Obesity rates among children in the US have doubled since 1980 and have tripled for adolescents.

Fifteen percent of children aged six to 19 are considered overweight compared to over 60 percent of adults who are considered overweight or obese.

Earlier onset of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity-related depression in children and adolescents is being seen by healthcare professionals.

The longer a person is obese, the more significant obesity-related risk factors become. Given the chronic diseases and conditions associated with obesity and the fact that obesity is difficult to treat, prevention is extremely important.

A primary reason that prevention of obesity is so vital in children is because the likelihood of childhood obesity persisting into adulthood is thought to increase from about 20 percent at four years of age to 80 percent by adolescence.

Children and adolescents generally become overweight or obese because they do not get enough physical activity in combination with poor eating habits.

Genetics and lifestyle also contribute to a child's weight status.

Recommendations for prevention of overweight and obesity during childhood and adolescence include:

  • Gradually work to change family eating habits and activity levels rather than focusing on a child's weight.
  • Be a role model. Parents who eat healthy foods and participate in physical activity set an example so that a child is more likely to do the same.
  • Encourage physical activity. Children should have 60 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. More than 60 minutes of activity may promote weight loss and subsequent maintenance.
  • Reduce "screen" time in front of the television and computer to less than two hours daily.
  • Encourage children to eat when hungry and to eat slowly.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or withholding food as a punishment.
  • Keep the refrigerator stocked with fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruit, and vegetables instead of soft drinks and snacks high in sugar and fat.
  • Serve at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Encourage children to drink water rather than beverages with added sugar, such as soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit juice drinks.

Always consult your child's physician for more information.


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