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Mar 11, 2015 08:41 PM EDT

Children of Divorced Parents Are More Likely to Drink Sugary Beverages

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New research suggests that children of separated or divorced parents are more likely to drink sugar-sweetened beverages than children in families where the parents are married, putting them at higher risk for obesity later in life.

"When families separate, one of the things that is most impacted for kids is their day-to-day routines," said Jeff Cookston, lead researcher of the study and chair of psychology at San Francisco State University. "Children are looking for consistency in their family environment, and family routines provide that security and continuity."

However, maintaining family routines can protect children during divorce against developing unhealthy eating habits. This indicates that families can go a long way toward promoting their children's health during times of family transition. Shared routines like carving out time to talk each day or sitting down to eat together appear to guard children following divorce.

For the study, researchers interviewed parents and children in both married and divorced families and asked them to keep five-day diaries of their eating habits. When they looked at the data, they found that children whose parents were separated or recently divorced were much more likely to drink sugar-sweetened beverages than children whose parents are married. Divorce did not appear to have a major impact on other unhealthful behaviors such as skipping breakfast or eating dinner outside the home.

Cookston said the reason is likely ease and access. Divorce can put a great deal of stress on families, including children, and drinking sugary beverages can be a "quick fix" for dealing with that stress.

"They're quite pleasurable, and they're accessible. The brain reacts with great deal of enjoyment when we have a soda or energy drink," he said. "It doesn't involve much thinking, except for the decision to purchase them or bring them into the house."

The results have significant implications for public health: More than 1 million children experience divorce annually, and 34 percent of U.S. 6- to 11-year-olds are overweight, putting them at risk for adult obesity.

Cookston said these routines could be modified: If a family recognizes that an activity is important, they will be more willing to adjust their schedules to make time for it.

"The family meal is an opportunity for interaction and collaboration that fills an essential need, which is to eat food, but also can be a fun, shared experience," he explained.

The findings are detailed in the journal Childhood Obesity.

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