Home sweet home? How reducing sugary drinks at home can help teens avoid weight gain

sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain
Eliminating drinks like soda, sports drinks and sugary juices can help prevent extra weight gain.

Given the whirlwind of media around New York’s recent ban on super-sized sugary drinks it’s no surprise to hear that sugar-sweetened beverages add extra calories to our diets—and, ultimately, extra pounds to our bodies. What’s more surprising is just how directly sugar-sweetened beverages impact weight gain, and how keeping zero-calorie drinks in the house can prevent that unnecessary weight from affecting our kids.

Recently, researchers Cara Ebbeling, PhD, (associate director) and David Ludwig, MD, PhD, (director) of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital examined the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain and teen’s home environments. They looked at 224 teens who were either overweight or obese, and who drank sugar-sweetened beverages on a daily basis.

For one year, researchers encouraged a group of these teens and their families to stop drinking these sugary beverages, by giving them free, weekly home deliveries of non-caloric beverages like water, seltzer and diet drinks. They also had check-ins, phone calls and other motivational messages to keep drinking the non-caloric drinks. The other group of teens—known as the control group—received no such intervention, and could freely drink sugary beverages the way they normally would.

At the end of the year, the researchers found a significant difference in weight gain between the two groups: The group that eliminated sugar-sweetened beverages gained an average of four fewer pounds than the control group. Hispanic teens showed the greatest benefit—gaining an average of 14 pounds fewer than the control group. “No other single food product has been shown to change body weight by this amount over a year simply through its reduction,” says Ludwig.

The intervention group stopped getting the non-caloric drink deliveries, phone calls and check-ins after one year, but researchers followed up with them a year later to see if they had started drinking sugary drinks again, or if they had gained unnecessary weight. As might be expected, as soon as the non-caloric beverages weren’t free and easily accessible at home, teens began to drink sugary drinks again, and gained extra weight.

This suggests that when healthy choices are available at home, teens are more likely to consume them. “Our findings suggest that access to non-caloric beverages and clear messages for consumers may be at the heart of behavior change,” says Ebbeling. “Adolescents can make healthful dietary changes with adequate support.”

With help from parents, children and teens can start making healthier choices at home. Here are a few tips for easy, affordable alternatives to sugary beverages:

  • Make iced tea without sugar
  • Keep a pitcher of water in the refrigerator, and add a slice of lemon for flavor
  • Drink flavored seltzer water instead of soda
  • Reduce money spent on sugary drinks while you’re on the go by carrying a reusable water bottle and filling it up while you’re out.
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For more ideas about how to make healthy choices and achieve optimal weight, contact the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Boston Children’s, which offers state-of-the-art patient care for treatment of pediatric obesity, and is accepting new patients. The multi-disciplinary, evidence-based practice shows patients not how to diet, but how to eat for life. To make an appointment, at any of our Boston, Waltham and now Peabody locations, call 617-355-5159

Other recent research by Ludwig and Ebbeling suggests that not all calories are created equal, and that low-glycemic diets may be better for weight-loss maintenance than traditionally recommended low-fat diets.