A tall cup of "bug juice" may call to mind memories of lazy summers during your childhood. But children today have many more options for sugary drinks — and it's making a difference to their waistlines.
A recent study found that even preschoolers were more likely to be overweight or obese if they regularly drank sugar-sweetened beverages.
The study did not include drinks that were 100% juice, but it did include soft drinks, sports drinks and other kinds of juices and sweetened drinks.
Children as young as 2 may be on track to gain weight if they drink sweetened beverages daily. By age 5, they're already at higher risk for obesity.
This study, led by Mark DeBoer, MD, of the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, looked at whether drinking sweetened beverages was linked to gaining more weight among preschoolers.
The researchers followed 9,600 children from birth through 5 years old. During interviews with the parents when their children were 2, 4 and 5 years old, data was gathered on how often the children drank sweetened beverages.
The beverages included soft drinks, sports drinks and any juices or drinks that were not 100% juice.
The children's height and weight were also measured to get their body mass index (BMI), a measure used to determine if someone is a healthy weight.
In doing their analysis, the researchers took into account how much screen time the children had as well as their sex, race/ethnicity and their socioeconomic status. "Screen time" refers to time spent watching TV or movies or on the computer or tablet.
The researchers found that the children who regularly drank sugar-sweetened beverages at 2 years old had a greater increase in their BMI over the next two years than the children who didn't drink them at that age.
A 2-year-old child was considered to regularly drink those beverages if the parents said the child "usually" had sugar-sweetened beverages with their meals and snacks.
About 9.3 percent of the children were drinking at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day at age 2.
However, at age 2, the children did not yet show any noticeable differences in their weights based on whether they drank sugar-sweetened beverages or not.
At ages 4 and 5, a "regular" drinker of sweetened drinks drank them once or more per day. A total of 13 percent of the children regularly drank sweetened beverages at age 4, and 11.6 percent regularly drank sugary beverages at 5.
Children in lower socioeconomic groups and of black or Hispanic races/ethnicities were more likely to be regular sweetened beverage drinkers.
Four- and 5-year-olds who regularly drank these beverages were also more likely to have a mother who was overweight or obese and were more likely to watch at least two hours of TV each day than those who weren't regular drinkers.
At ages 4 and 5, the children who regularly drank sugary beverages were more likely to be overweight or obese.
The analysis revealed that the increased weight at age 4 was likely a result of the differences in race, socioeconomic status and screen time.
However, by age 5, even when these differences were adjusted in the researchers' calculations, the children who regularly drank sweetened beverages were still almost 1.5 times more likely to be overweight or obese than non-regular drinkers.
Then the researchers looked specifically at how many total sweetened drinks a week the children had and compared it to their weight.
At both 4 and 5 years old, the more sweetened beverages the children drank, the heavier they were (higher BMI), even after taking into account the other differences in background or screen time.
The researchers concluded that an increase in weight was linked to the sugar-sweetened drinks in children as young as 4 and 5 years old.
The pattern appears to begin at least as early as age 2, even though the increase in weight was not yet there at age 2.
"Pediatricians and parents should discourage sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to help avoid potential unhealthy weight gain in young children," the researchers wrote.
"From a public health standpoint, strong consideration should be made toward policy changes leading to decreases in sugar sweetened beverage consumption among children," they wrote.
This study was published August 5 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.