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Aug 05, 2013 01:32 PM EDT

Childhood Obesity Among Five-Year-Olds Caused by Sugary Sodas, Juices and Sports Drinks

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Much research has already been published on childhood obesity, but a new study has linked unhealthy daily sugar-sweetened drinks to five-year-olds, Reuters reported.

The study, published in Pediatrics, found that five-year-old children who drink sodas, juices and sports drinks sweetened by sugar are more likely to become overweight than those who drink them less often.

The evidence in the past has mostly detailed obesity related to sugary drinks in teens and adults, but this is among the first for young children.

"Even though sugar-sweetened beverages are relatively a small percentage of the calories that children take in, that additional amount of calories did contribute to more weight gain over time," said Dr. Mark DeBoer, who led the study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The researchers surveyed parents in a national group representing 9,600 children, all born in 2001, when the kids were two, four and five. The parents were asked to report their income and education and how often their kids drank sugar-sweetened beverages and watched TV. Each child and parent were weighed at every survey visit.

About nine to 13 percent of the children, depending on age, had at least one sugary soda, sports drink or juice per day. Those children were more likely to have an overweight parent and watched an average of at least two hours of TV per day at the ages of four and five.

The most telling evidence of all was that children who drank at least one sugary drink per day were more 43 percent more likely to become obese than children who drank less on average or none at all.

Obesity was determined in the children if their body mass index scored above the 95th percentile for their age, as determined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 15 percent of the five-year olds surveyed were obese.

"Overweight and obesity are caused by an imbalance between calories consumed from all foods and beverages (total diet) and calories burned (physical activity)," the authors wrote in a statement. "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."

The study did not take into account the children's other eating habits or physical activity. DeBoer recommended water and milk as ideal beverage options for young children.

Dr. Y. Claire Wang, who studies childhood nutrition and obesity at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York and was not involved in the study, was not surprised by the findings.

"This is really just adding to the evidence we already know that (drinking) sugar-sweetened beverages in childhood is associated with weight gain. It's definitely one of the major, if not the main, driver in childhood obesity," she said.

Wang recommended whole fruits instead of fruit juices, but also that sugary drinks and snacks should not be cut out entirely.

"It's not to say that you're going to ban all these sugary things ... from people's childhoods," she said. "It's just they're supposed to be very rare treats."

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