Sugar Drinks a Source of Weight Gain for Teens

Researchers say a simple way for teens to lose weight is to stop having sugary drinks. Doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston found that teenagers who replaced soda and juices with calorie-free beverages lost about a pound a month over a six-month trial.

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For a nation awash in diet advice, Harvard researchers are out with a study about what it would mean to make one simple change: eliminate sodas and other sugary drinks. Turns out households that replace sugary drinks with calorie-free ones saw overweight teens shed about a pound a month.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

The teenagers in the study were not asked to change any of their eating habits. They didn't count calories or carbs, they simply restocked their refrigerators. Sugary sodas, juices and energy drinks were replaced with bottled waters and artificially sweetened beverages such as diet soda. The teens were also counseled on how to resist high-calorie drinks outside the home.

Ms. CARA EBBELING (Study Director, Children's Hospital Boston): What we found was that heavier teens lost the most body weight.

AUBREY: Cara Ebbeling, of Children's Hospital Boston, directed the research. She explains during the six-month study her team also tracked a separate control group. These teens weren't counseled to change their beverage consumption and went right on drinking daily servings of Coke, Gatorade and other sugary drinks of choice.

Ms. EBBELING: Among the heaviest one-third of teens, the group receiving calorie-free beverages had a marked decrease in body mass index compared to the control group. And the difference between groups translates to almost one pound per month.

AUBREY: A complex way of saying that the heavy teens who stopped drinking their calories lost significant amounts of weight.

The results don't surprise Madelyn Fernstrom. She's director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ms. MADELYN FERNSTROM (Director, Weight Management Center, University of Pittsburgh): Kids and even adults are always so surprised when you say if you just would cut out the juices and sodas and high-calorie drinks you have, that would be enough to make an impact on your weight. And I'm delighted to see that these results support this.

AUBREY: The challenge, says Fernstrom, is making teens and adults aware of all the hidden calories in drinks that many people consider healthy. Take diners in a Washington food court.

Mr. VICTOR FAUSO(ph): We tend to just focus on like juices. We don't try to drink a lot of sugar drinks.

AUBREY: Victor Fauso and his partner Christiana Doutery(ph) say they consciously avoid soft drinks. But they haven't thought of much about the sugar added to juices and bottled teas.

I see you're drinking Arizona Iced Tea.

Mr. FAUSO: Yeah, yeah. I wonder how much sugar that has? Let's see. Ooh, yeah, 17 grams.

AUBREY: Per serving, which translates into calories.

Mr. FAUSO: Who knew?

AUBREY: Fernstrom's advice on sweetened teas is to skip them. And on fruit juices she recommends eating the whole fruit instead.

Ms. FERNSTROM: People often, biologically, do not sense calories that are consumed in liquids the same way as a solid.

AUBREY: So drinking a cup of orange juice may be a good supply of vitamins. And for people not worried about weight, it's fine. But she says since the liquid doesn't leave people feeling full or contented, juice can be a big barrier in people's efforts to limit calories.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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