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Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Help for your overweight teen

Dr. P’s Pediatric Journal Club

The study

This was a randomized, controlled trial (the most scientifically valid kind) lasting 6 months. Teens, age 13-18 years, were randomly divided into two groups:

  1. Got zero-calorie beverages (water, diet soda) delivered to their home + a magnet on the refrigerator stating “Think before you drink” + phone reminders not to drink sugar-sweetened beverages.
  2. A “control” group that did not change their dietary intake.

What the study found

  • The zero-calorie beverage group decreased their sugar-sweetened beverage intake by 82%.
  • The heavier a teen was initially, the greater effect this had on weight gain.
  • The heaviest teens gained one pound / month less, compared to the control group.

What the study suggests
A simple intervention of eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages is an effective weight-loss strategy for overweight teens.

Dr. P comments
A true confession from Dr. P: my track record is pretty bad in helping overweight kids lose weight.

I’m not alone: many of my colleagues (and parents and kids) share my frustration. The sad fact is that there is no great treatment for overweight kids yet. This is especially frustrating given the serious epidemic of obesity in kids and its very real medical consequences.

There are many reasons for our dismal track record:

  • Only 1/3 of parents actually recognize that their child is overweight.
  • Many families aren’t aware of how fattening the food is that they are feeding their kids.
  • “Food is love”. Who even wants to deprive their kids of fried chicken?
  • Schools are not providing low fat, healthy meals and serve sugary beverages.
  • As many of us sadly know, controlling one’s appetite is easier said than done.
  • Many diets are complicated and seem overwhelming to even attempt.
  • Even if motivated, restraint is rarely a teenager’s strong point.

This study gives me hope. It suggests that by simply decreasing intake of sugary drinks and juices (which have no real nutritional value and do not suppress appetite), we can knock off about a pound/month of weight gain. Not a huge amount, but it’s a start. It’s simple and, unlike most diet measures, not much of a deprivation.

One problem is that teens are brainwashed to think many sugar-sweetened beverages are healthy, energy boosting and, worst of all, cool. I suspect it may take a national campaign (such as has successfully occurred with smoking) to turn those perceptions around, to make drinking water the really cool thing to do.

Putting this information together with the advice of my blogs of 12/26/05 and 12/12/05, here is Dr. P’s simple-as-can-be nutritional advice for overweight teens and their families:

  • Increase exercise.
  • Serve a low animal fat, low junk food diet most of the time.
  • Zero-calorie beverages only.

Yes, yes, I know that these simple recommendations are not the magic answer for your teen’s overweight. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You can implement these measures: they are relatively simple and pain-free, and they are proven effective. All and all, they’d make make a good start.

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A Dr. P “unidentified flying fact” to give you pause:

Drinking a single 12-ounce can of a sugar-sweetened soft drink / day –> one pound of extra weight gain every 3-4 weeks.

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A caveat from Dr. P:

So far, little is known about whether artifical sweetener intake by young children could lead to long-term adverse effects of some kind. Consult your pediatric provider should you want to use them in your pre-teen kids.

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Article cited:
“Effects of Decreasing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption on Body Weight in Adolescents: A Randomized, Controlled Pilot Study”. Ebbeling C, et al. Pediatrics. March, 2006.


Related Topics:
A Healthy Diet for Teen Girls Only, WebMD Video: Keeping Your Kids Active

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 9:21 am

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