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Americans are drinking fewer sugary beverages than they were a decade ago

Sugary beverages are a leading source of added sugar to the American diet, and several studies have found a strong link between the consumption of those beverages and obesity.

Americans — both children and adults — are drinking fewer sodas and other sugary beverages than a decade ago, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Obesity.

But, unfortunately, that trend is not true for all demographic groups in the United States. The study also found that the consumption of sugary beverages remains high among teens and young adults, as well as among blacks and Hispanics.

Sugar-sweetened beverages “are a leading source of added sugar to the diet for adults and children in the U.S. and their consumption is strongly linked to obesity,” said Sara Bleich, the study’s lead author and a professor of public health policy at Harvard University, in a released statement

Understanding which groups are most likely to consume such beverages is “critical” to developing effective approaches for reducing their consumption, she added.

Obesity rates keeps climbing

We are, of course, in the midst of an obesity epidemic. A report released in October by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that almost 40 percent of adults and almost 20 percent of adolescents in the United States are obese — the highest rates ever recorded. 

Sugary beverages are a leading source of added sugar to the American diet, and several studies have found a strong link between the consumption of those beverages and obesity.

And, as this new study shows, on any given day about half of adults and two-thirds of children in the United States drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage.

That’s fewer than in the past, but it’s still an incredibly large proportion of our population.

Breaking down the data

For their study, Bleich and her colleagues analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of people who participated in the annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2003 and 2014.

The sample included 18,600 children aged 2 to 19 and 27,652 adults aged 20 and older. The participants were asked if they had consumed in the previous 24 hours any of seven different kinds of beverages: sugar-sweetened beverages, 100 percent fruit juice, diet beverages, milk (including flavored milk), unsweetened coffee or tea, alcohol, and water. (Parents or other guardians answered the questions for the youngest participants.)

The data revealed that between 2003 and 2014 the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages had dropped 12 percentage points among adults (from 61.5 percent to 50 percent) and 19 percent points among children (from 79.7 percent to 60.7 percent).

The biggest decline, however, was among whites — of all age groups. No significant changes were seen among Hispanics in any age category or among blacks aged 20 to 39 or 60 and older.

Indeed, throughout the 12 years of the study, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages remained consistently highest among blacks, Mexican-Americans and non-Mexican Hispanic children, teens and young adults. —  all groups at higher risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The study also found that the consumption of 100 percent fruit juice remained constant among children between 2003 and 2014. That’s a troubling trend, given the growing evidence linking juice consumption to weight gain, particularly among young children.

On the positive side, larger proportions of children and adults reported in 2013-2014 that they drank plain water during the previous 24 hours than had done so a decade earlier. Children were also drinking more milk.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with one major limitation: It relied on people recalling what they drank on a particular day. Such remembrances can be inaccurate, although, as Bleich and her colleagues point out in their paper, evidence suggests that people tend to have a more accurate recall of their consumption of packaged beverages, such as sugar-sweetened sodas, than of other food-related items.

Still, the findings are illuminating — and a bit hopeful. They suggest “a recent ‘turning point’ toward lower energy intake in the U.S. diet, potentially attributable to widespread discussion and media coverage of the role of certain foods [including sugar-sweetened beverages] in promoting obesity, changes to food allowances within the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, improvements to school feeding programs, and product reformulations by food manufacturers and retailers,” Bleich and her colleagues write.

But the findings also point for the need for more public health efforts, they add, such as taxes on sugary beverages and changes in procurement polities that would “place restrictions on the type of beverages that can be made available for purchase in places such as schools, worksites, or government institutions.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on Obesity’s website.

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Comments (2)

This article would be

This article would be stronger if it addressed even minimally the reasons why certain racial groups are still drinking massive amounts of sugary drinks. Or questioned the research on that racial divide.

Even better, of course, and in the U.S. it's hard to bring up economic class: what role does income or other financial resources play in the dietary choices of this or the other racial group? That would involve questioning the "educational" aspect of this issue (why does the "information" about sugary drinks not reach Hispanics or blacks?) and ask whether poverty or near-poverty level incomes have anything to do with what one drinks.

As a registered dietitian

As a registered dietitian working with the Juice Products Association, I would like to comment on the “troubling trend” the author noted, related to the fact that 100% juice intake remained constant among children.

First, the research discussed in the article evaluated the consumption of beverages, not the topic of juice and obesity. Second, the overwhelming majority of nutritional research shows no association between drinking 100% juice and trends in weight gain. An independent systematic review of data from 1995 – 2013 done by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a study published in Pediatrics (May 2017) both confirm this.

Finally, it is important to note that 100% juice is classified in the fruit category due to its nutritional similarities to whole fruit. As the majority of Americans do not eat enough fruit in general, 100% juice consumption can actually help supplement total fruit intake and help children meet their fruit goals. The author of the study and this article should look more closely at the breadth of nutrition research before making generalizations that could have an impact on public health. For more information, please visit www.juicecentral.org.