Sugary drinks are stacking the deck against children and the price our kids are paying is obesity. Nearly a third of our children are overweight or obese. An alarming 14% of low income Vermont toddlers are obese and a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine predicts that the majority of 2-year-olds today will be obese by the time they are 35.
This will be the first generation of American children to live shorter lives than their parents.
A recent phenomenon that is now unfolding, is that children today now suffer from Type 2 diabetes. This disease previously existed only in adults and was referred to as adult-onset diabetes; it basically didn’t exist in kids when I was in medical school. The skyrocketing rate of obesity in children has led to this shift in onset of Type 2 diabetes.
Other diet-related diseases on the rise among children include high blood pressure and fatty liver disease (where a build-up of fat in the liver increases the chance of liver failure and liver cancer over time). Similar to Type 2 diabetes, these medical conditions were almost unheard of 30 years ago in children.
So what do we do? Address the problem where it starts, or more appropriate, before it starts.
Sugary drinks are one of the biggest culprits in the obesity epidemic, because they are the largest source of daily calories in the diets of American children. In fact, each extra serving of a sugar-sweetened beverage consumed a day increases a child’s chance of becoming obese by 60 percent.
Restaurants play a central role in the American diet as Americans are increasingly consuming more food away from home. Children and adolescents who eat at both fast-food and full-service restaurants drink more sugary drinks and soda and less milk because restaurants are largely marketing sugar-loaded drinks to kids. While restaurants have made some progress in improving children’s meals, progress has been modest and slow.
States and localities are nudging restaurants to do better. To date, eight communities in California, Lafayette, CO and Baltimore, MD have adopted ordinances to require that restaurants offer only healthier beverages as the default with children’s meals.
The Vermont Senate recently passed legislation S.70, that would have Vermont restaurants with kids’ meals offer healthy beverages first – such as water, milk and 100% fruit juice – and parents could request a substitute if they wanted. It passed unanimously by both the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the Senate.
S.70 offers parents a better choice, making the healthy choice the first one. Disney has tried this successfully. When Walt Disney theme parks switched to healthier beverage defaults, parents stuck with the healthier option two-thirds of the time, even though trips to theme parks are typically special occasions and more indulgent options were available.
S.70 legislation is now before the House Human Services Committee. Most kids’ meals are consumed by children between the ages of 2 and 5, the same toddlers who could become obese or develop diabetes or liver disease if nothing is done. This is motivation enough for me to be supportive. Let’s hope it is for them as well.
Mary Cushman, MD