Soda Causes Problems for Teens

Healthnotes Newswire (April 12, 2007)—Mothers and teachers have been saying it for years, and now science backs them up: kids who drink lots of sugary soft drinks have more trouble with hyperactivity and other mental health difficulties than other kids.

Soft drinks are a significant source of simple sugars. As much as 100 grams (about 7 tablespoons) of sugar is likely to be found in a typical liter of soda. Refined sugar has received attention as one of the major culprits in the childhood obesity epidemic, the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.

Energy level and mood are also influenced by simple sugars. Blood sugar levels rise rapidly after eating foods with refined sugar, but this “sugar high” is short-lived; many people experience low blood sugar (reactive hypoglycemia) after consuming sugary foods or drinks. Feelings of lethargy and depressed or anxious mood often accompany a period of hypoglycemia. In addition, rapid changes in blood sugar cause serotonin levels to be unstable, and can have other effects on metabolism that could alter mood and behavior.

Parents and others who spend time with children have long noted negative effects of sugary foods on kids’ attention and behavior, but studies have not been able to consistently confirm these observations.

The new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, surveyed 5,547 Norwegian teens in the tenth grade to find out about their eating and soda-drinking habits. Norway has the highest soft drink consumption rate in the world—over 30 gallons per person each year.

The teens were asked to rate their feelings of anxiousness, sadness, tension, dizziness, panic, hopelessness, and worthlessness, as well as their degree of sleeplessness, unhappiness with themselves, and the sense that everything is a burden. Other questionnaires were used to evaluate hyperactivity and conduct problems.

Boys were found to drink more sugary soda than girls: 45% of boys and 21% of girls reported drinking one or more glasses per day. On all measurements—mental distress, conduct problems, hyperactivity, and total mental health difficulties—the boys and girls who drank the most soda (four or more glasses per day) had the most trouble.

Although it is likely that refined sugar plays a role in the relationship between soda consumption and mental health problems in adolescents, the study’s authors make two important points in their conclusion: first, adolescents who drink lots of soda are more likely to skip meals and eat less nutrient-dense foods than the other teens, making them more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies that could contribute to mental health difficulties; and second, the effect of caffeine—another common ingredient in soft drinks—on attention, behavior, and mental distress is not yet understood.

Dr. Lars Lien, the study’s lead author, wants people to drink less sugary soda, whatever the reason for its negative effects. “These findings make a strong comment about the need to make soft drinks less available in schools, homes, and events for kids,” he commented. “Together with all the other compelling evidence of detrimental effects of sugar, I think the evidence from this study strengthens the call to make changes as a society.”

Substituting diet sodas may not be the answer to this issue, as sugar substitutes such as aspartame (NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda) also have the potential to cause adverse effects in the body, and the safety of these compounds has not been evaluated in long-term clinical studies. Exposing kids to soda alternatives, such as plain water, mixtures of juice and bubbly water, and herbal ice teas may help develop healthier lifelong habits.

(Am J Public Health 2006;1815–20)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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