A new study has recommended substituting sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) with water in children's diets. This way, they say, children and adolescents can be prevented from consuming an average of 235 excess calories daily.
Such a replacement may prove very helpful in dealing with childhood overweight and obesity, and address dental cavities and other health problems associated with added sugar, say the study's authors.
This lifestyle change will have no detrimental effects on nutrition, they add.
"The evidence is now clear that replacing these 'liquid calories' with calorie-free beverage alternatives both at home and in schools represents a key strategy to eliminate excess calories and prevent childhood obesity," said lead author Dr. Y. Claire Wang, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
During the study, the researchers analysed what children and teens reported they ate and drank on two different days, using nationally representative data from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The team also estimated the impact of substituting water for SSBs on the total energy intake of youths ages two to 19.
Given that there is no evidence that youngsters increase their consumption of other foods and beverages to compensate for drinking fewer SSBs, the researchers say that every can of soda or fruit drink replaced by water may mean a net reduction of calories.
The authors highlight the fact that most children and adolescents in the U.S. consume SSBs on any given day, including soda, fruit drinks, punches, sports drinks and sweetened tea.
According to them, the calories contained in such drinks can represent more than 10 percent of their total daily intake.
The team also underscore the fact that there is growing evidence that sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is an important contributor to rising youth obesity rates.
"This study shows the substantial impact that replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water could have," said C. Tracy Orleans, senior scientist and distinguished fellow at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which co-funded the study along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Reversing the rise in childhood obesity requires finding approaches like this to close the gap between daily energy intake and daily energy expenditure. Changes such as this one can potentially add up to significant benefits for the population as a whole," Orleans added.
While the findings suggest that reducing SSB consumption may prevent unhealthy weight gain, the researchers say that widespread recommendations to decrease SSB consumption are unlikely to lead to unnecessary or harmful weight loss in healthy-weight or underweight teens.
"Making children and teens more active is important. However, simply eliminating the extra calories they don't need from these sugary drinks can tip the energy balance in a major way," Dr. Wang said.
The researcher point out that a typical 15-year-old boy would need to jog for 30 minutes in order to burn off the calories contained in a 12-oz can of soda.
The alternative drink best suited to reduce excess caloric consumption is water, they add.
"These beverages are nothing more than different forms of sugar water, which kids don't need." said Dr. Steven Gortmaker, professor of the Practice of Health Sociology at the Harvard School of Public Health and the senior author on the study.
"Unless they are running marathons, which we do not recommend for kids, water is the best choice for quenching their thirst. It is also low cost, especially when it comes from a clean tap source," Gortmaker added.
The study has been published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.