The research is mounting that sugar-sweetened beverages are linked with health problems in adults, including type-2 diabetes, heart conditions and obesity. Now, in a study published in Journal of Nutrition, Maria Van Rompay, an instructor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, decided to focus on children 8 to 15—specifically the effect soda had on their cholesterol.
She and her colleagues took advantage of a large study involving nearly 700 children who answered questions about what they ate. They also had blood tests done at the start of the study and again a year later. Van Rompay and her team were particularly interested in seeing how the children’s soda intake was linked to their cholesterol levels, since previous studies suggested a connection between the carbohydrates found in sugars and fat levels such as cholesterol and triglycerides.
Children consuming more sugared drinks had higher levels of triglycerides, which are linked to a higher risk of heart disease, and when Van Rompay looked at children who changed the amount of sugared drinks they consumed over the year, she found that those who drank one serving less on average from the start to the end of the study showed higher levels of HDL, the good cholesterol that can protect against heart problems.
That suggests the beverages do have an effect on the body, particularly on the balance between the amount of fat that is stored and the amount used as energy. “Dietary intake is one of the modifiable factors that can be targeted in helping to prevent disease,” she says. “Even a small change in one serving per week can be enough to have an effect on HDL,” she says. “So educating children about sugar-sweetened beverages and changing the amount they drink is something that feels manageable and can be done to improve the health status of our children.”
Van Rompay suspects that the reason she didn’t see differences in cholesterol levels when simply comparing children who drank more or less sugared drinks may have to do with differences in their starting levels of HDL. Many factors can affect HDL and LDL, of which diet is only one. Other contributors, such as genetics and ethnic backgrounds, may also play a role. In her multi-ethnic study, those with higher cholesterol levels and those with lower levels at the start may have had different cholesterol levels, but these effects might have canceled each other out, leaving little difference in the final outcome. “More research in racially and ethnically diverse samples to investigate sugar-sweetened beverages and blood lipids is needed,” she says.
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