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Bad Headline for Preschool Obesity Study
February 7, 2005,

“Sweet Drinks Not Linked to Preschool Obesity”… I’m sure that’s the headline the Associated Press meant to run instead of it’s “Sweet Drinks Linked to Preschool Obesity” -- because there’s no way that the new study (Pediatrics, February 2005) spotlighted in the AP article links sweet drinks with childhood obesity.

The guts of the AP article are:

Sweet drinks - whether Kool-Aid with sugar or all-natural apple juice - seem to raise the risk of pudgy preschoolers getting fatter, new research suggests. That may come as a surprise to parents who pride themselves on seeking out fruit drinks with no added sugar…

The Pediatrics study followed 10,904 Missouri children in a nutrition program for low-income families. Researchers looked at the effect of sweet drinks in three groups: normal and underweight children, those at risk of becoming overweight, and those who already were overweight.

The researchers compared the children's heights and weights, approximately one year apart. They also looked at parents' reports of what their children ate and drank during a four-week period at the beginning of the first year. Fruit drinks like Kool-Aid and Hi-C were included as sweet drinks, along with juice and soda.

The link between sweet drinks and being overweight showed up for all three weight categories, although it wasn't statistically significant for the normal and underweight children.

I’m not sure whether the article's concessions -- “seem to raise the risk” (first paragraph) and “although [the risk of becoming overweight] wasn’t statistically significant for the normal and underweight children” (last paragraph) -- were intended to be bones thrown in the name of accurate science reporting -- but if they were, they failed to convey the study’s utter lack of support for the AP’s headline.

Sweet drink consumption was not associated with overweight among the 85 percent of the kids in the study who were normal-or-underweight at the study outset. The rate of overweight was actually lower among those normal-or-underweight kids who consumed 3 or more drinks per day compared to those who consumed 0-1 drinks per day.

The remainder of the kids in the study were overweight at the outset of the study, and most remained so one year later. Blaming consumption of sweet drinks for their remaining overweight hardly supports the AP’s contention that “sweet drinks… raise the risk of pudgy preschoolers getting fatter.” Again, the reported rate of overweight was actually lower among the kids who consumed 3 or more drinks per day.

What is clear from the study is mentioned in the authors' write-up but apparently not in the media release the AP reporter regurgitated.

“Of children who were normal or underweight at baseline, 3.1% were overweight at follow-up; of those who were at risk, 25% were overweight at follow-up; and of those who were overweight at baseline, 67% remained overweight at follow-up,” reported the authors.

Although it’s not possible to evaluate those results because the authors didn’t include the data in their write-up, it looks like this study, at most, might be evidence that pudgy kids are at greater risk of being pudgy a year later than normal weight kids. But there’s no evidence that this has anything to do with consumption of sweet drinks.

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