Sugary drinks may not have a link with obesity afterall

Sugary DrinksCC: Don Daskalo at Unsplash

If you assumed that sugary drinks have a direct link with childhood obesity, you’re not alone. In fact, governments around the world are in agreement. In the UK, a sugar tax was imposed in a bid to prevent children from drinking too many sugary drinks. Recently, researchers at Nottingham University decided to investigate the link between such drinks and obesity. According to the media, the results suggest sugary drinks have no link with obesity.

What did the research into sugary drinks reveal?

The researchers issued a national survey with the aim of assessing the calorie intake of children aged between four and 10 years old. They gathered the date over an eight-year period, stretching from 2008 and 2016. Parents of the 1,298 children who took part completed a food diary and detailed how many sugary drinks they consumed.

Around 78% of the children consumed more than their Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of non-milk extrinsic sugar (NMES) each day. NMES does include the added sugars you find in candy and fizzy drinks, but it doesn’t include fructose and lactose. Around 61% of those children also consumed at least one sugary drink per day.

Overall, if you interpret the study as being representative of the UK’s child population as a whole, the majority consume three times their RDA of NMES. According to the researchers, sugary drinks form a small proportion of their NMES intake. Many media outlets are now taking this to mean that sugary drinks don’t cause obesity.

In reality, the research reveals that placing a tax on sugary drinks isn’t a robust public health strategy in the fight against childhood obesity. If sugary drinks only form a small proportion of a child’s daily NMES intake, it’s necessary to adopt a different approach.

What does previous research into sugary drinks reveal?

In 2008, the Journal of School Nursing performed a literature analysis examining the same topic. This research took place in the United States and it revealed that a child’s risk of becoming obese during their adolescent years increased by 1.6 times for each sugary drink they drank. The same research paper suggests that consuming sugary drinks decreases insulin resistance and satiety, resulting in further sugar cravings.

Interestingly, another paper examining the potential impact of a sugar tax in the United States found that those who propose such taxes exaggerate their benefits. This paper revealed that a sugar tax could reduce calories by 51 per day in children and 47 per day in adults. It found that the weight loss benefits were overestimated by 63% in Year One and 764% in Year 10. However, sugar taxes can result in significant income generation for the government.

What are the best ways to tackle childhood obesity?

Although the benefits of taxing sugary drinks are probably overestimated, this doesn’t mean that they don’t play a role in increasing your obesity risk. As the paper from Nottingham University reveals that children are eating too many NMES sugars, there’s clearly a need to tackle them overall.

In addition to reducing a child’s sugar intake, promoting outdoor play and sports is also wise. One study suggests that involving children in sports before the age of nine increases their chances of playing sports at age 12. Additionally, those who play sports age 12 are less likely to become obese.

As far as the Nottingham University study is concerned, don’t take it as a green light to treat sugary drinks as part of a healthy diet. Reducing your sugar intake does decrease your obesity risk, and it’ll maintain your oral health too.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.