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Low-Cal Drinks Help Teens Stay Trim


Curbing teen obesity could be as easy as restocking the family fridge with low-cal drink alternatives that kids choose themselves, a new study finds.

Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston had 103 teens pick non-caloric drinks they liked, then delivered a supply of those drinks to their home refrigerators.

The result: Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages tumbled by 82 percent over a six-month period, the researchers reported.

That quickly translated into real weight loss for heavier teens -- a pound a month during the half-year of the study.

"We are really excited by this line of research," said study lead author Cara Ebbeling, co-director of obesity research in the division of endocrinology at the hospital.

Her team published the findings in the March issue of Pediatrics.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) may have a unique effect on obesity. Simply decreasing SSB consumption seems to be a promising strategy for preventing and treating obesity," she said.

Not only that, Ebbeling said, but the simplicity of the study -- replacing sugary drinks at home with non-caloric drinks that teens like -- could serve as a template for future interventions.

"Most interventions to prevent overweight in adolescents take a very comprehensive approach, including decreasing fat intake and increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables," she said, "but in this study we targeted one behavior."

The rate of overweight among American children aged 6 to 19 has been increasing rapidly in recent years, according to federal statistics, from 11 percent in 1994 to 16 percent in 2002. Lack of exercise, high-fat diets and high-calorie beverage consumption are all thought to be contributing factors.

Hard data on that issue is scarce, Ebbeling said, but since studies show that adolescents obtain half their beverages at home, the team focused its efforts on beverages typically found in the family fridge.

For their work, the researchers divided the teens into two groups. One group received free, at-home deliveries of non-caloric drinks that they chose, ranging from sugar-free sodas, to non-caloric lemonade and iced tea to bottled water. Enough was delivered for their families as well. The teens also spoke to the researchers several times during the course of the six-month study to change their beverage choices, and to discuss weight-loss issues.

A control group of teens was not asked to change its consumption of high-cal beverages.

At the end of six months, the teens in the intervention group had reduced their consumption of sugary beverages by 82 percent and the heaviest one-third of the teens lost the equivalent of a pound a month, Ebbeling said.

"The data is compelling enough to continue this line of research," said Ebbeling, who is now working on a similar, much larger study that will be funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the Charles H. Hood Foundation. These groups sponsored this study.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said the small study addresses the difficult problem of helping teens improve their dietary habits.

"They [the researchers] made it comfortable for kids to switch their behavior," she said. "They showed the kids that if they changed their beverages they would be just as happy as they would with the SSBs."

Also important was that the study endorsed non-caloric drinks as safe to drink, said Cathy Nonas, director of the obesity and diabetes program at New York City's North General Hospital.

"Parents are afraid to give no-calorie drinks to their children, but the data doesn't say it's going to hurt them," she said.

Dr. Richard Adamson is senior scientific consultant for the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association, which represents the manufacturers of soft drinks. He noted that the study was small, with a subgroup of teens showing a modest weight loss for the length of time of the study. According to Adamson, similar results could have been accomplished by following a low-fat diet.

Adamson said the beverage industry promotes calorie-rich products as a refreshment to be drunk in moderation. It also offers a wide variety of drinks, both caloric and non-caloric, and in many portion sizes, he said.

"You can have a variety of drinks, from non-caloric drinks to juices with calories, and can also pick the sizes," he said. "It's up to parents."

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