Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for taxes to be implemented on sugary drinks, a sign of growing concern over the amount of sugar kids are consuming via sodas, sweetened juices and other beverages. In a worrying indicator of the nation’s sugary drink fixation, a new study has found that one in five children reported not drinking any water on a given day—and that those kids consumed more calories from sweetened beverages than kids who did drink water, according to Reuters’ Lisa Rapaport.
The report, published in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed nationally representative data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which offered information on 8,400 children between the ages of two and 19. Included in the survey were data on kids’ water and sweetened beverage consumption, along with information about caloric intake from sugary drinks and the percent of total calories that came from these drinks.
Researchers found that around 20 percent of children reported drinking no water throughout the day. And they consumed almost twice as many calories, on average, than kids who did drink some water. Overall, the young study participants drank 132 calories of sodas and other sugary beverages per day. That number dropped to 112 calories with any intake of water, the researchers found. But kids who didn’t drink any water took in an average of 210 calories from sweetened drinks.
“Adjusting for sociodemographic variables,” the study authors write, “no water intake was associated with intake of 92.9 … more calories from [sugar-sweetened beverages] among participants aged 2 to 19 years.”
Those extra calories don’t provide much in the way of nutritional value and they can add up, according to Asher Rosinger, lead study author and director of the Water, Health, and Nutrition Lab at Penn State. “What you have to remember is that an extra 3,500 calories equals one pound of weight gain,” Rosinger says. “So if you’re not compensating for those extra calories, then over a month, you can potentially gain a pound.”
Sugary drinks have, in fact, been linked to childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, dental problems and high cholesterol. “I’ve seen 2-year-olds with fatty liver disease and teenagers with Type 2 diabetes,” Natalie Muth, a California-based pediatrician, told the New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs last month. “These are diseases we used to see in their grandparents."
The new study doesn’t definitively prove that drinking less water prompts kids to drink more soda, or vice versa, as Gizmodo’s Ed Cara notes. But it does suggest that there may be an inverse relationship, and that adults should encourage kids to drink water so they don’t swap it for something less healthful.
“Kids should consume water every single day, and the first beverage option for kids should be water,” according to Rosinger. “Because if they’re not drinking water, they’re probably going to replace it with other beverages, like sugar-sweetened beverages, that are less healthy and have more calories.”
It’s important to note, as the study authors do, that the research does not account for the complex reasons why some children may not be drinking enough water. In the United States, as Sera Young reported for Scientific American in February, reports of water contamination from lead or copper are on the rise. In rural parts of the country, runoff from fertilizer is contaminating wells. Some families have their water shut off because they struggle to pay the bills.
So boosting water intake among children—which may in turn reduce their consumption of sweetened beverages—isn’t just about promoting water over sugary drinks. “Increasing access to safe, free water,” the study authors write, “is critical for childhood health.”