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Nutrition: Study Links Sugary Drinks to Teenagers' Weight

By ERIC NAGOURNEY | The New York Times |March 7, 2006
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Debate remains over the role of sweetened drinks like soda in the growing obesity problem among children. But a study released yesterday suggests that they could be an important factor.

Writing in Pediatrics, researchers reported on what happened when they asked a group of teenagers to stop drinking sweetened beverages for 25 weeks — and had nonsweetened drinks delivered to the teenagers' homes to encourage them to stick to their commitment.

The researchers, led by Cara B. Ebbeling of Children's Hospital Boston, found that the teenagers' consumption of the high-calorie drinks went down by about 80 percent during the study and that the teenagers who had been the most overweight had significant reductions in their body mass indexes at the end of the 25 weeks.

The researchers acknowledge that there is little proof that drinks sweetened with sugar or corn syrup play a major role in obesity compared with other foods. But the study says that as the obesity rate among young people has gone up, so has their consumption of the drinks, which are heavily advertised.

Soft drinks are nearly impossible for adolescents to avoid, said the study's senior author, Dr. David S. Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital. "They're basically everywhere: schools, cafeterias, vending machines around town," he said.

The researchers recruited about 100 volunteers ages 13 to 18 and assigned half to the group that was asked to give up the drinks.

Members of that group received weekly shipments of nonsweetened drinks of their choice, including water and diet beverages. They were sent four servings a day, along with two servings for each additional family member "to avoid competition" for the product.

The teenagers also received motivational phone calls from the researchers and refrigerator magnets with advice like "think before you drink."

A similar study involving more teenagers over a longer period of time is now taking place, Dr. Ludwig said.

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