Some rational thoughts on sugary beverages and obesity

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591837_80424387Sugary beverages (sodas, sports drinks, fruit drinks) have been targets of nutritional do-gooders for years. They ve been blamed for overweight and obesity, indeed for the obesity epidemic that s impairing the health of Americans especially the young. But how serious an impact are such drinks really making? A couple of new studies have attempted to assess the effects of such beverages.

Dr. Gina Ambrosini led the first study, along with colleagues from the UK Medical Research Council and the University of Western Australia. These researchers examined the food and beverage intake of 1433 teens at 14 and 17 years of age. Body Mass Index (BMI), blood pressure, blood lipids and glucose were all measured, and the investigators evaluated the overall risk of cardiometabolic risk as it related to sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption.

In brief, they found that girls who were in the top third of SSB consumption had significantly increased risk of overweight and obesity as well as greater cardiometabolic risk. This was not true for boys, however. They also found that some of the associations were weakened when they adjusted their statistics to account for variations in major dietary patterns.

In the second article, also published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Drs. Claire Wang and Seanna Vine of Columbia University conducted a retrospective study using dietary records from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2007-2010 to evaluate the most likely beneficiaries of the recently proposed cap on soda sizes (16 oz) in New York City if such a cap were applied nation-wide.

According to the NHANES data, overweight people were more likely to drink SSBs over 16 oz, but there was no difference between income groups. The authors did estimate that if 80 percent of SSB consumers chose only a 16 oz size beverage, there would be a decrease of only about 58 calories in those between 2 and 19 years old, and of about 63 calories in those older than 20 years.

So what are we to make of these studies? Should their findings influence nutrition policy or thought? In an editorial accompanying these articles, Dr. John Sievenpiper and Russell de Souza, of St. Michaels Hospital in Toronto and McMaster University respectively, parsed the data. They noted that the dietary constituent blamed for obesity had shifted from dietary fat to added sugars and SSBs; and are now being presented by some as serious threats to public health. Some even equate the health risk to that seen from smoking, and suggest warning labels on SSBs.

These editorialists note Evidence from randomized trials, however, has yet to support this strong position. Further, they note that in the first study, the significant association of SSB consumption with obesity was only found when comparing the most extreme consumers. And they also suggest that other dietary factors are also probably involved.

ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava suggests that People who are demonizing SSBs should pay attention to this editorial. We should know by now that attacking only one dietary component as THE culprit for obesity is highly unlikely to have a beneficial effect. She continues We must keep educating people especially youth about the health risks associated with obesity and the rational steps to take to avoid it.