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
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
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
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
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
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."