Michele Obama's "Let's Move" campaign has focused attention of the dramatic increase in the number of overweight kids. Currently about 17 percent of American kids are obese in comparison to five percent that were obese 30 years ago.
While there are many contributing factors, one stands out as the most significant cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Could it be that kids are having too many meals at McDonald's and other fast food outlets? Or is it TV viewing and playing on the computer instead of getting out and running around? Parents who are too busy to prepare healthy meals? Or perhaps it's the cutback in gym classes for school kids.
All of the above can contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic but the winner of the prize for single-handedly contributing to the fattening of our kids is...soda (sweetened beverages like sports and energy drinks are no better).
A recent Tufts University review of studies published between 1990 and 2007 found that, for school-aged children, sugar sweetened beverages were the most consistent dietary factor associated in increases in fatness. Although there were relationships between other types of food and weight, the associations weren't as consistent or as strong.
It's easy to see why sodas contribute to obesity. On average Americans consume 50 gallons of soda each year. Sugared beverages account for about ten percent of the caloric intake for children and teenagers. The average child consumes approximately 175 calories from sugared drinks each day yet these drinks don't provide any nutrients and they don't do anything to satisfy hunger.
Several interventions have been suggested to decrease soda consumption. A study of second and third graders in Germany found that giving each child a plastic water bottle and having the teachers encourage the children to fill the bottle each morning resulted in increased water consumption. At the end of the school year the kids who got the water bottles were significantly less obese than the control group.
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity suggests that adding a one cent per ounce tax to the cost of sodas would reduce annual consumption from 50 to 38.5 gallons and would raise $200 billion dollars that could be used to subsidize healthier foods and obesity prevention programs in schools.
New York City had an ad campaign that asked, "Are you pouring on the pounds?" and warned, "Don't drink yourself fat." Spokesmen for the food companies counter that a variety of behavior changes are necessary to prevent obesity. They suggest that singling out sodas with ads or increased taxes might result in increasing the consumption of other foods that are equally fattening.
To be fair, the beverage industry has made some helpful changes such as removing full-calorie soft drinks from schools, and pledging not to market to children under age 12, but their marketing continues to impact children. For example Coke spent $20 million for product placement on American Idol which is watched by two million kids.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the "soda wars" we can start at home by encouraging our kids to drink water instead of the sugary stuff.