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Soda: Source or Scapegoat for Kid Obesity?

Soft drinks shouldn't shoulder all of the blame for growing obesity among American children, say doctors in The Journal of Pediatrics' May edition.

"Obesity is a multifactorial problem," write the doctors, including Robert Murray, MD, FAAP, professor of pediatrics and director of the Borden Center for Nutrition and Wellness at Ohio State University.

"Any recommendation that singles out one activity or dietary change can be criticized as 'simplistic' and is unlikely to be effective in isolation," they write.

However, Murray and colleagues don't give soft drinks a glowing review. They call soft drinks "energy dense" and "nutrient poor" (translation: high in empty calories).

The doctors note studies associating soft drink consumption with weight gain as well as a decline in milk intake. This could lead to nutritional deficiencies such as a decrease in calcium, protein, zinc, and vitamins A and C, they write. "The risk of future osteoporosis and bone fracture because of inadequate daily calcium intake is only the most prominent clinical issue associated with declining milk consumption."

'Soft Drinks Are Not Tobacco'

Murray and colleagues didn't do a new study on soft drinks. Instead, they looked at other research on the topic.

Calling obesity "America's biggest threat to child health," here's what the doctors say about soft drinks:

"Soft drinks are not tobacco. The majority of Americans drink them. Like other energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, they may have a place in everyday nutrition, albeit only in moderation and, in the opinion of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on School Health, not in schools.

"To be successful in our efforts to prevent childhood obesity, we need the cooperation of the beverage, restaurant, and vended and snack foods industries," says the commentary. "We should not make any one of them the scapegoat for obesity.

"On the other hand, with obesity assuming the mantle of the No. 1 preventable disease in the nation, these industries should expect pediatricians and parents to hold them accountable for marketing practices that worsen an already deleterious health situation for children."

Industry's Response

"We would agree with him that soft drinks are not a root cause of obesity. It is a multifactorial problem that we all need to be concerned about and all need to do what we can to address it," says Kathleen Dezio, spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association.

However, Dezio says other studies have not shown the same results as those cited in Murray's commentary. "It is not a cut-and-dry thing on the science side," Dezio tells WebMD.

She also says one of the cited studies had an error in consumption figures and that the commentary wrongly says soft drink industry representatives funded other cited research. The industry purchased but did not fund that data, says Dezio.

The ABA "always urges consumers to look at our whole product mix," which also includes bottled waters, teas, fortified juices, and sports beverages, says Dezio. She says the trade group also promotes a balanced lifestyle including "a variety of different foods and beverages, eating them in moderation, and getting daily activity into your life."

Small Changes Can Add Up

There are many paths away from obesity and toward better health. Healthful nutrition and exercise are universally recognized as two such routes.

A drastic, overnight overhaul might not be the only option. Baby steps may make a difference in time. That might include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, cutting back on sugary indulgences, and finding sources of comfort or reward that don't involve food.

Small changes can add up, say the doctors. "It is only by making such changes, one at a time if necessary and more if possible, that we are likely to contain a problem of the magnitude of obesity," they write.

Murray is on the speaker's bureau for the National Dairy Council, says the journal.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Murray, R. The Journal of Pediatrics, May 2005; vol 146: pp 586-590. Kathleen Dezio, spokeswoman, American Beverage Association. Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman, Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc.