Evidence linking sugary drinks to overweight and obesity grows

Parliament house flag post

Evidence linking sugary drinks to overweight and obesity grows

Posted 26/11/2012 by Amanda Biggs

Evidence has been growing that the consumption of sugary drinks among children is contributing to our increasing rates of overweight and obesity. Sugary drinks include ones artificially sweetened with sugar, such as soft drinks and energy drinks, but also seemingly healthy drinks, such as fruit juice. Sugary drinks are sometimes described as offering ‘empty kilojoules’ because they provide plenty of calories but lack many essential nutrients. Two recent studies into the effect sugary drink consumption has on children's weight, add to a growing body of evidence linking them to weight gain. A recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported on both studies.

 In one trial, a group of normal weight Dutch school children aged 5–12 was given one can of sugary drink daily, while another group was given one can of drink sweetened with a non-calorie sweetener. The trial found that over 18 months body mass index (BMI)—a measure of weight adjusted for height—in the group given the sugar sweetened drink increased significantly more than the group given the artificial sweetener. 

In the second trial, one group of overweight and obese US adolescents received home deliveries of no calorie drinks for one year, while another group of similar profile was given supermarket vouchers, to spend as they please. For the first year, those in the first group consumed fewer sugary drinks and their BMI increased more slowly than those in the second group. However, differences in weight gain disappeared in the second year (possibly due to other changes in dietary habits of both groups).

It has been claimed that the aggressive marketing of soft drinks in Australia is fuelling consumption and contributing to weight gain. But there are significant gaps in our knowledge about levels of sugar consumption. No national survey on consumption of food stuffs has been undertaken since 1998–99, while a national survey on nutrition and dietary habits has not been done since 1995. Other survey data confirms that Australians generally are getting fatter, not exercising enough and are eating poorly, but our level of sugar consumption is not accurately known. Some survey data indicates that children are currently consuming higher than recommended levels of sugar, but trend data measuring consumption over time is lacking.

The 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (NCNPAS), co-funded by the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the government, surveyed 4487 children aged 2–16 children on their BMI, physical activity, and dietary habits. The survey found all age groups of children were consuming higher levels of sugar than recommended by the national dietary guidelines. On average across age groups, dietary sugar comprised around 23–24 per cent of total energy intake, compared to the recommended level of 20 per cent. NCNPAS also found that 17 per cent of children were overweight and a further 6 per cent were classified as obese. Sugar consumption over time was not measured, nor were findings compared with the 1995 national nutrition survey. 

More detailed analysis of the survey undertaken by researchers from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in Western Australia looked at the composition of children’s sugar consumption, including their consumption of sugar sweetened beverages (SSB). SSB included carbonated drinks, sports drinks, flavoured milks, and sugar sweetened fruit juice. Children were classified as a being high, moderate or low consumer of SSB. High consumption of SSB was defined as contributing more than a third of daily energy intake (or 2 glasses of SSB a day). Around 14 per cent of children were considered high SSB consumers, 66 per cent were low-moderate consumers and approximately 20 per cent reported no SSB consumption during the survey period. High consumption of SSB, particularly carbonated drinks, was associated with low levels of education and inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption. Younger children aged 2–3, tended to consume sugar sweetened juice, while older age groups favoured carbonated drinks.  

The researchers concluded that consumption of SSB contributed ‘a substantial amount of energy to the diet of Australian children’. This ranged from 4 per cent in 2–3 year olds to 7.5 per cent in 14–16 year olds. Despite this, the researchers were unable to confirm a ‘significant association between high or regular consumption of SSBs and likelihood of being overweight or obese’ (although they suggest the study design limited their ability to draw valid inferences between SSB consumption and weight gain). 

Sugar remains an essential component of a healthy diet, with current national dietary guidelines (published in 2003) recommending a ‘moderate’ consumption to maintain health. The new national dietary guidelines (to be released early in 2013) are likely to modify this advice, taking into account the ‘strengthening evidence’ of the association between the consumption of sugar sweetened drinks and the risk of excessive weight gain in both children and adults. Indeed, the draft guidelines, issued for public consultation in 2011, recommend people should ‘limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars. In particular, limit sugar-sweetened drinks’. Precisely what the term ‘limit’ means in terms of daily consumption may become clearer when the new guidelines are released. 

The evidence from the two trials reported in the NEJM will not settle the contentious debate that has developed in Australia about whether our levels of sugar consumption have been rising and therefore contributing to weight gain. This will require more evidence based on a national survey of dietary habits, and further scientific studies. However, the two trials are valuable because their findings are based on robust scientific methodology—including randomisation and use of control and intervention groups—which has sometimes been lacking. They add to the growing body of scientific evidence that increased consumption of sugary drinks plays a significant role in weight gain. But they do not rule out the role of other factors such as overall diet, physical activity levels, and genetic components, which still also need to be considered.


  • 21/01/2014 2:25 PM
    Martin Butterfield said:

    It is a pity that the US trial didn't include a group of non-obese teenagers. The issues raised in your final paragraph seem very important as the drinks are only one way in which extra sugar gets pumped into our diet.

Thank you for your comment. If it does not require moderation, it will appear shortly.
Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

Parliamentary Library Logo showing Information Analysis & Advice




refugees asylum immigration Australian foreign policy Parliament elections climate change social security women welfare reform taxation Indigenous Australians Australian Defence Force welfare policy school education higher education private health insurance health financing emissions trading Middle East Senate Australian Bureau of Statistics employment people trafficking Asia statistics illicit drugs gambling health reform federal election 2010 Australian Public Service income management Medicare disability Sport United Nations environment industrial relations constitution transport politics criminal law Afghanistan health forced labour food public service reform aged care aid Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency World Anti-Doping Agency United States federal budget Carbon Pricing Mechanism dental health international relations governance regulation Fair Work Act voting law enforcement electoral reform OECD Australian Electoral Commission WADA child protection poker machines Australia in the Asian Century steroids National Disability Insurance Scheme detention 43rd Parliament slavery health system leadership domestic violence parliamentary procedure International Women's Day accountability defence capability multiculturalism ASADA Australian Federal Police labour force people smuggling debt New Zealand Australian Crime Commission pharmaceutical benefits scheme political parties coal seam gas Human rights crime China Census election results UK Parliament Papua New Guinea banking corruption pensions children's health Aviation federal election 2013 foreign debt gross debt net debt Senators and Members ALP Newstart Parenting Payment Youth Allowance sea farers United Kingdom energy food labelling Australian economy violence against women vocational education and training military history by-election High Court skilled migration mental health Federal Court terrorist groups science social media Higher Education Loan Program HECS federal state relations youth paid parental leave same sex relationships customs planning doping health risks Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling sex slavery Special Rapporteur Northern Territory Emergency Response social policy ANZUS Rural and regional trade unions Foreign affairs election timetable Indigenous royal commission Productivity firearms public policy Population ADRV terrorism transparency research and development welfare ASIO intelligence community Australian Security Intelligence Organisation carbon tax mining employer employee renewable energy regional unemployment fishing European Union family assistance United Nations Security Council forestry Drugs welfare systems Indonesia children Constitutional reform local government codes of conduct terrorist financing homelessness Parliamentary remuneration money laundering Trafficking in Persons Report social inclusion paternalism environmental law US presidential election nutrition ODA Defence sitting days electoral divisions Southeast Asia administrative law universities TAFE Ireland citizenship asylum seekers early childhood education Canada Financial sector national security fuel disability employment Tasmania integrity standards NATO Australian Secret Intelligence Service sexual abuse World Trade Organization Australia public health housing affordability bulk billing water health policy Governor-General US economy export liquefied natural gas foreign bribery question time speaker superannuation public housing expertise climate Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry Pacific Islands reserved seats new psychoactive substances synthetic drugs UNODC carbon markets animal health middle class welfare constitutional recognition of local government referendum consumer laws PISA competition policy US politics language education baby bonus Leaders of the Opposition citizen engagement policymaking Australia Greens servitude Trafficking Protocol forced marriage alcohol entitlements ministries Hung Parliament social citizenship maritime Iran regional students school chaplains federal budget 2011-12 salary Medicare Locals primary care Building the Education Revolution Turkey Syria marine pollution sustainability prisons police deaths in custody electoral margins electoral pendulum electoral redistribution redistribution NSW redistribution WA redistribution ACT electoral boundaries ASEAN Sustainable Development Goals Double dissolution Senators safety vehicles MYEFO Pathology tertiary education Taiwan Xi Ma meeting family violence government financial advisers financial planners Financial System Inquiry Murray Inquiry China; Economic policy; Southeast Asia; Africa housing Speaker; House of Representatives; Parliament High Court; Indigenous; Indigenous Australians; Native Title ACT Indigenous education Norfolk Island External Territories emissions reduction fund; climate change child care funding refugees immigration asylum procurement Indigenous health e-voting internet voting nsw state elections 44th Parliament 2015 ABS Age Pension Death penalty capital punishment execution Bali nine Bali bombings Trade EU China soft power education Fiji India Disability Support Pension Antarctica Diplomacy by-elections state and territories Bills anti-corruption fraud bribery corporate ownership whistleblower G20 economic reform innovation Members of Parliament Scottish referendum Middle East; national security; terrorism social services Criminal Code Amendment (Misrepresentation of Age to a Minor) Bill 2013 online grooming sexual assault of minors ACT Assembly smoking plain packaging tobacco cigarettes Asia; Japan; international relations Work Health and Safety Migration; asylum seekers; regional processing China; United States; international relations fiscal policy Racial Discrimination Act; social policy; human rights; indigenous Australians Foreign policy Israel Palestine asylum refugees immigration political finance donations foreign aid Economics efficiency human rights; Racial Discrimination Act employment law bullying Animal law; food copyright Australian Law Reform Commission industry peace keeping contracts workplace policies same-sex marriage disorderly conduct retirement Parliament House standing orders prime ministers First speech defence budget submarines workers Somalia GDP world heritage political engagement leave loading Trade; tariffs; safeguards; Anti-dumping public interest disclosure whistleblowing Productivity Commission limitation period cancer gene patents genetic testing suspension of standing and sessional orders live exports infant mortality honorary citizen railways disciplinary tribunals standard of proof World Health Organisation arts international students skilled graduate visas temporary employment visas apologies roads Italy national heritage NHMRC anti-dumping Rent Assistance obesity evidence law sacrament of confession international days DFAT UN General Assembly deregulation Regulation Impact Statements small business Breaker Morant regional engagement social determinants of health abortion Members suspension workplace health and safety marine reserves hearing Victoria astronomy resources sector YMCA youth parliament Korea rebate Australian Greens presidential nomination Racial Discrimination Act political parties preselection solar hot water Financial Action Taskforce Horn of Africa peacekeeping piracy Great Barrier Reef Stronger futures political financing political education Social Inclusion Board early childhood National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care Murray-Darling Basin sanctions Norway hospitals republic President Barack Obama Presidential visits qantas counselling Korean peninsula Work Choices biosecurity hendra federalism federation preselection therapeutic goods Therapeutic Goods Administration plebiscites computer games pests suicide nuclear COAG Ministerial Councils floods ADHD stimulant medication advertising electricity extradition conscience votes poverty preventative health rural health coastal erosion Parliamentary Budget Office work-life balance

Show all
Show less
Back to top