- Consumption of sugary beverages in America has significantly decreased among both adults and children between 2003 and 2014.
- Despite a decline in beverage consumption, obesity rates remain high due to excessive caloric intake.
- Healthier alternatives to sugary drinks, such as water, seltzer, tea or milk, can have a notable impact on obesity.
- Teenagers and young adults currently consume more sugar than recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, however, the increase in water and milk consumption is an encouraging trend.
- Influence from parents and the individuals’ environment plays a significant role in the persistence of high consumption rates of sugary beverages in certain demographic groups.
Over the past decade, our penchant for sodas and other sweetened beverages—the leading source of sugar intake in our diets—has experienced a remarkable decline among both adults and children, recent research indicates.
Between 2003 and 2014, the number of adults reporting daily intake of sugary beverages has decreased by 12 percentage points, with an even more impressive reduction of 19 percentage points among children, notes Harvard-based researchers.
Shifts in Beverage Preferences
“People are changing their tastes,” reveals Sara Bleich, prominent professor of public health policy at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Not only is general beverage consumption dropping, but so is the consumption of sweet drinks. Perhaps people are starting to absorb the messaging about beverages.”
However, despite this positive shift, the obesity crisis rages on—today we have more obese mid-age individuals, young adults, and children than ever before, as Bleich highlights.
Yet, Americans continue to take in an excessive amount of calories. “Even though overall beverage consumption is on the decline, we’re simply eating too much, and it’s this overeating that perpetuates the rise in obesity,” she states.
This report was originally released online in the _Obesity_ journal on November 14th.
Dealing with a Sugar-Infused Dilemma
As Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at the New York University Medical Center explains, “The silver lining here is that the consumption of sugar-laden drinks has diminished in the U.S. The downside is that we have a long way to go since these beverages contribute the most to the added sugars in our diet and are strongly linked to obesity.”
Heller believes that reducing our intake of these drinks could significantly impact obesity, as long as we replace them with healthier alternatives—like water, seltzer, tea or milk.
The research team, headed by Bleich, drew data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2003 to 2014. The data covered 18,600 children between 2 to 19 years old, and over 27,600 adults aged 20 or above.
The participants disclosed their beverage consumption in the past day, including sugar-sweetened drinks, 100-percent juice, diet drinks, milk (including flavored milk), unsweetened coffee or tea, alcohol, and water.
In 2003-2004, nearly 80 percent of children and 62 percent of adults reported consuming a sugar-sweetened drink on any given day. By 2013-2014, these figures had dropped to approximately 61 percent among children and 50 percent among adults, as per the study’s findings.
Dietary Guidelines and Sugar Consumption
Despite this decline, teenagers and young adults still consume more than the suggested amount of added sugar as per the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, says Bleich.
According to the American Heart Association, adults should limit their daily consumption of sugar to six to nine teaspoons—which includes all the sugar present in everything we consume throughout the day. In reality, most Americans consume about 20 teaspoons per day. Furthermore, children should not exceed more than four teaspoons of sugar daily.
The most pronounced decline in the consumption of sugary drinks was seen among white adults of almost all ages, Bleich shared. However, the consumption of sugary beverages remained high among black individuals, Mexican Americans, and Hispanic teens—groups already in the high-risk category for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
In many cases, these groups reside in poorer areas, which offer plenty of cheap, sugary drinks, Bleich explains. “There is an ongoing effect where individuals grow accustomed to consuming sweetened beverages, viewing them as a staple part of their lives, rather than opting for water and other calorie-free drinks,” she notes.
Milk and Water: A Refreshing Change
Despite the overall reduction in the consumption of sugary drinks, children were observed to be drinking more milk, with both children and adults consuming more water—both encouraging trends, Bleich confirmed.
Heller believes that parents can sway their children’s beverage preferences by choosing unsweetened drinks themselves. For instance, prior studies have shown that parental behavior and practices significantly influence children’s frequency of water intake.
She continues “There is no need for children to drink soda (either diet or regular varieties), chocolate milk or fruity drinks.” If children are raised on water, milk or unsweetened plant-based milks, they are usually perfectly content with these choices.
Inevitably, “they will stumble upon sugar-infused beverages,” she adds, “but hopefully, the healthier habits they cultivated while young will persist.”
For more insights on sugar, consider visiting the American Heart Association’s comprehensive guide on sugar.