Children often turn to sugary drinks instead of water, increasing the risk of obesity

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A new study has found that children who do not drink water often choose to drink sugary beverages instead, increasing their calorie intake and risk of obesity.

Children who drink less water are more likely to turn to calorific sugary drinksGrzejnik | Shutterstock

The research, which was recently published in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed data collected between 2011 and 2016 from 8,400 children between the ages of 2 to 19. The data was part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is carried out every year by the CDC. As part of this survey, parents were asked to record what their children had consumed in the past 24 hours, and the total calories were added up.

Sugary drinks double the number of calories consumed

The data showed that one in every five children and young adults had not drank any water in the 24 hours before the survey. The study found that the children who did not drink water on a given day “consumed nearly twice the calories from [sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)] as those with water intake, exceeding the recommended 10% of total calories from added sugar.”

The American Heart Association recommends that the diets of children over the age of 2 should have a limit of 25 grams of added sugar per day. It also suggests that children shouldn’t drink more than one 8-ounce sugary drink per week.

However, these guidelines do not inform many people’s daily diet. One 2017 study showed that approximately two-thirds of US children drank at least one sugary drink a day, with around 30 percent of children drinking two or more sugary drinks a day.

‘All it takes is an extra 70 calories per day to gain weight’

The aim of the study was not to determine how much water would stop children from drinking sugary drinks, but instead to determine whether water intake had any effect on children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

The research was not able to find a definite cause and effect between water intake and lower calorie intake, with only an association being found. Additionally, the study states “NHANES does not collect data on the perception of water safety or trust, which may affect the propensity to drink SSBs and plain water,” and the study only assessed water intake from tap and bottled sources.

The study did show a significant difference in water intake between children of different races/ethnicities and age ranges, but “not sex or federal income”. For instance, non-Hispanic white children took in an extra 122.5 kcal from sugary drinks if they did not drink any water, but Hispanic children only consumed an extra 60.7 kcal from sugary drinks.

Dr. Nathalie Muth, a practicing pediatrician and registered dietician in Carlsbad, California, spoke on the attraction of sugary drinks over water.

“Sugary drinks are a mainstay in many children’s diets. They are inexpensive, easy to find, heavily marketed and taste sweet, so children like them.”

“Kids who drink water may have parents who limit sugary drinks and otherwise promote healthy eating, or kids who don’t drink water may not have access to safe water."

"I talk with my patients and their families all the time about the health harms of sugary drinks and the advantage of drinking primarily water and milk.”

She added:

Kids who don’t drink water are more likely to get their fluids elsewhere. All it takes is an extra 70 calories or so per day for a child to gain excess weight and be at risk for overweight or obesity.”

Muth also suggested that parents could offer water as the first choice for drinks from 6 months of age, as well as setting examples by drinking water themselves, and even making drinking water more attractive by infusing it with fruit, mint, or lime or lemon.

Do sugary drinks provide any benefits?

A separate investigation led by the University of Warwick, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Lancaster University found that “sugary drinks or snacks do not provide a quick ‘fuel refill’ to make us feel more alert,” according to Dr. Sandra Sünram-Lea, who was involved in the study that interrogated the popular belief that sugar can improve mood.

Another study published in the journal Academic Pediatrics suggested that providing mothers plain facts about health risks associated with consuming sugary drinks during pregnancy and early childhood may help to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity.

Emerging evidence suggests that regular consumption of sugary beverages, either by the mother during pregnancy or by the child before age 2, may increase a child’s risk of obesity later in childhood,”

Jennifer Woo Baidal, Lead Author

Although Americans have been drinking less sugary drinks in recent years, obesity still affects two in every three people in the USA. More than 20 percent of Americans aged between 12 and 19 are obese, and it is disadvantaged groups of people that are affected the most.

The current study  concludes by saying “Increasing access to safe, free water is critical for childhood health, because daily water intake may help reduce SSB consumption and curb childhood obesity,” and that “US children and young adults should drink water every day to help avoid excess caloric and sugar intake.”

Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.


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