Sweet Exceptions

When active kids partake in moderation, sugary drinks appear less bad than feared.

the past thirty years has seen a spike in Americans’ consumption of sugary soft drinks, a trend that has been linked to poor diet, weight gain and obesity. Such unhappy outcomes have done little to slake our thirsts, however.

Recent survey data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that upwards of one half of the population of the United States consumes at least one 12-ounce sugary drink each day, and that 25 percent drink as many as four per day. These same data show that young people aged 12 to 19 imbibe sugary drinks at much higher rates than any other group.

Given the numbers, one might be forgiven for assuming that such beverages have helped fuel the alarming rise of kids’ obesity-related health problems. But an MU study cautions against too quickly assuming a cause-and-effect relationship. In fact, according to a new finding by Jill Kanaley, an MU professor of nutrition and exercise physiology, and Timothy Heden, a recent doctoral graduate, short-term, moderate consumption of high-fructose and high-glucose beverages has little impact on the metabolic health of weight-stable, physically active adolescents.

The “physically active” part is key, the researchers discovered.

Kanaley and Heden’s study measured several aspects of metabolic health, including insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels, after participants had consumed moderate amounts of either high-glucose or high-fructose beverages every day for two weeks. The high-glucose drink contained 50 grams of glucose and 15 grams of fructose; the high-fructose drink contained 50 grams of fructose and 15 grams of glucose. In comparison, two 12-ounce cans of soda contain about 50 grams of fructose, although the amount of sugar found in these drinks varies by brand and type. The researchers used armbands with electronic sensors to monitor physical activity of the participants, all of whom were healthy male and female adolescents ages 15-20.

The take away? “These beverages may not be as unhealthy for adolescents as previously thought, provided that kids stay active,” says Kanaley. “That physical activity component is really critical in protecting against some of the negative effects of drinking large amounts of sugar-sweetened drinks demonstrated in previous studies.”

While other research has shown consuming sugary drinks can have detrimental metabolic effects, Kanaley says those results have been inconsistent. One shortcoming has been that previous studies typically excluded adolescents and did not measure participants’ levels of physical activity.

“In our study,” Kanaley says, “the female adolescents averaged around 8,000 steps per day, and the males averaged about 10,000 steps per day. These children weren’t athletes, but they had active lifestyles.”

This is not to suggest kids should immediately jog over to the nearest Coke machine, cautions Kanaley. “Many parents of adolescents worry about their children’s consumption of sweetened beverages. I certainly would recommend that they work to reduce their children’s intake of sugary drinks, but it also is important for kids to remain active, especially if they are drinking a lot of sugary beverages.”

Kanaley and Heden’s article was published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It was partially funded by a grant from the J.R. Albert Foundation, which provides support to nonprofit organizations promoting healthy living and wellness. Other MU researchers on the study included Ying Liu, Young-Min Park and Nathan Winn.

Texas Longhorn

Illustration by Gary Taxali
Young people aged 12 to 19 imbibe sugary drinks at much higher rates than any other group.

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