COLUMBIA, Mo. — More than one-third of children in the United States ages 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese. Over the past 30 years, the number of obese adolescents has more than quadrupled, which also has led to an increase in children diagnosed with diabetes. To combat this trend, Aneesh Tosh, M.D., adolescent medicine physician at University of Missouri Health Care and associate professor of clinical child health at the MU School of Medicine, recommends that sugary drinks be removed from adolescents’ diets.
“The sharp rise in childhood and adolescent obesity is alarming,” Tosh said. “Being overweight is the biggest risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. We want to prevent diabetes in adolescents to avoid the serious medical problems associated with the disease. One very important step to preventing these complications is to stop drinking sugary drinks.”
Through clinical experience and research, Tosh has found that eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages is the most significant lifestyle change that children and adolescents can make to lose weight and improve health. Sugary beverages can add up to 200 empty calories per serving to an adolescent’s diet that provide no nutritional benefits. Sugary beverages include juice, soda, sweet tea, sports drinks, energy drinks and coffee drinks, all of which can be high in calories.
“It is very important that a developing body gets plenty of water and milk,” Tosh said. “We realize those can get boring for some of our patients, so adding zero- or low-calorie flavorings to water is fine every once in a while.”
As adolescents progress toward adulthood, they become increasingly responsible for their own beverage choices. Many of the beverages adolescents have available at school, home and social gatherings contain significant amounts of sugar.
Sports drinks have become the drink of choice for many teenagers because they incorrectly assume the drinks are healthier than soda. Tosh said most children and adolescents, even when involved in athletics, do not actually need the electrolytes in sports drinks, and some of these sports drinks have more calories than regular soda. Energy drinks, which also are rising in popularity, not only contain sugar but also caffeine. Energy drinks can lead to other health problems, such as poor sleep, headaches and heart irregularities.
“It really is about education, because many parents and young patients just don’t realize how many calories there are in sugary drinks,” Tosh said. “My patients who cut sugary beverages are the ones losing weight. Conversely, I’ve found that patients who struggle to switch to water and milk are the ones who have not been successful in losing weight.”
One successful patient is Andrew Roberts. At age 13, Roberts weighed 307 pounds and was in and out of the hospital because of obesity-related health complications.
“It was not uncommon for me to drink 2 liters of soda a day,” said Roberts, who is now a 23-year-old personal trainer. “I lost 115 pounds in about a year and a half by cutting out sugary drinks, junk foods and sweets, and getting exercise.”
Roberts said it was easy to see where excess calories were coming from once Tosh had him keep a food log that included drinks.
“Limiting consumption of sugary drinks to once a week for special events rather than daily is a significant step toward healthy weight loss for many children and teens,” Tosh said. “When children and teens spend time hanging out with their friends — not just when they’re at school — it’s important that sugary drinks aren’t their go-to beverage.”
About the MU School of Medicine
The MU School of Medicine has improved health, education and research in Missouri and beyond for more than 165 years. MU physicians treat patients from every county in the state, and more Missouri physicians received their medical degrees from MU than from any other university. For more information, visit http://medicine.missouri.edu/.