A new study published by the journal Pediatrics warns that sugary beverages are not only making older children and teens overweight, but are linked to obesity in 4 and 5 year-olds as well. "I see a lot of families dealing with obesity in my clinic," co-author Rebecca Scharf, MD, tells Yahoo! Shine, "parents associate food with calories and are sometimes surprised that children are getting a lot of calories from beverages."
More on Yahoo!: Study: Sugar and Fat May Be As Addictive As Cocaine
As every parent knows, children love eating sweets. In fact, kids are biologically programmed to crave the taste of sugar. Sweet flavors tell the brain to "eat more" (which is one reason that nutritious mother's milk is sweet). Eating more is one thing for a hunter-gatherer scouring the wilderness for sustenance, but for the average sedentary adult or child, it can be a health disaster. Obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and some forms of cancer, among other chronic health problems.
More on Yahoo!: Bottle Feeding Babies More than Doubles Obesity Risk
The study examined data from over 9,600 children born in 2001. It found that 4 and 5 year-olds who regularly consumed one 8-ounce soda, sports drink, or juice drink with added sugar each day had a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and were 43 percent more likely to be obese than their peers who drank sugary drinks infrequently or not at all. They also drank less milk and were more likely to watch two hours or more of television a day.
The American Beverage Association responded to the research with a written statement, "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."
While the study acknowledges that there are many factors that may contribute to obesity, such as "regular physical activity and adequate sleep," Scharf points out that that consuming sugared soft drinks is a modifiable behavior so much easier to combat than, say, a genetic factor.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently put out guidelines limiting the sale of sugary snacks and drinks in school so its really up to parents to monitor their children's sugar consumption at home. With young children who don't have the ability to purchase drinks and snacks for themselves, parents have almost complete control.
The obvious answer is to hand your child a cup of water when they are thirsty, but for kids and their parents who are accustomed to consuming sweetened beverages, this can be easier said then done. While not optimal parenting behavior, who hasn't calmed a cranky child with the promise of a sugary treat or beverage of some kind?
"We are not saying you have to avoid sugar altogether," says Scharf. "But it is something that should be saved for a special occasion." The authors also recommend offering your child milk instead of a sugary drink since it is filling and contains protein and other nutrients.
If your child has been drinking juice with added sugars, switch to hundred percent fruit juice. After they have become accustomed to juice, move to whole fruit and plain water. How to make water appealing? Let them choose their own colorful water bottle or fun cup with a built-in straw. Especially for young children, modeled behavior is key. If kids see their parents happily drinking plain water, that will become their beverage of choice as well.
Also on Shine: