Researchers from the Children's Hospital Boston say that the surge in children's consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks such as sodas, sports drinks, "juice drinks," iced teas, lemonades and punches matches the rise in childhood obesity.
In a trial led by Cara Ebbeling, PhD, and David Ludwig, MD, PhD, in the hospital's Division of Endocrinology, a simple beverage-focused intervention led to weight loss.
Their report shows that a novel intervention to limit the consumption of sugary drinks - the home deliveries of noncaloric beverages - had a beneficial effect on weight loss.
The randomized, controlled trial, enrolled 103 children aged 13 to 18 through a Boston area high school; the teens were offered a $100 mall gift certificate if they stuck with the six-month study; they all did.
Half the teens, picked at random, received weekly deliveries of noncaloric beverages of their own choosing - bottled waters and artificially-sweetened drinks and were told to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and advised on how to choose noncaloric drinks outside the home.
Monthly phone calls and "Think Before You Drink" refrigerator magnets provided reminders.
The remaining teens, served as a control group, and were asked to continue their usual eating and drinking patterns.
At the end of six months, the group receiving beverage deliveries had an 82 percent reduction in consumption of sugary drinks, while intake in the control group remained unchanged.
The heavier the teen was initially, the stronger the effect seen on body weight.
Among the heaviest one-third of teens, the beverage-delivery group had a marked decrease in body mass index (BMI), while the control group had a slight increase - a group-to-group difference of almost 1 pound per month.
Other factors affecting obesity - physical activity levels and television viewing - did not change in either group.
According to Ebbeling's calculations a single 12-oz sugar-sweetened beverage per day translates to about 1 pound of weight gain over 3 to 4 weeks.
She says sugary beverages have no nutritional value and seem to make a huge contribution to weight gain.
Ebbeling believes comprehensive weight-loss programs often do not have a substantial effect on body weight, and people are all too often overwhelmed by nutrition advice and give up.
She says they opted to study one simple, potentially high-impact behavior, and made it easy for adolescents to replace sugary drinks with noncaloric beverages.
Although the intervention targeted only the home environment, previous research suggests that home is where adolescents get the majority of their food and beverages.
The authors say it should be relatively simple to translate this intervention into a pragmatic public health approach, schools for example could make noncaloric beverages available to students by purchasing large quantities at low costs.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the Charles H. Hood Foundation, and published in the March issue of Pediatrics.