Parents should replace juice and fizzy drinks with jugs of water at mealtimes, diet experts have advised, to reduce their children’s sugar intake and cut their risk of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Senior health scientists said today that sugar-sweetened drinks were the biggest source of sugar intake across all ages, but were a particular problem among children and teenagers.
Despite recent calls for a tax on sugary drinks and cuts to sugar content in everyday foods, Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, said that “very simple advice” to parents could play an even bigger part in improving children’s diets.
“Drink water, that’s the very simple advice to parents,” she said. “Encourage your children to drink water. Once they’ve been weaned, children ought to be drinking water…There is a whole range of drinks out there, [but] I don’t need to encourage people to be drinking any of the others. I can firmly stick to encouraging people to getting their fluid from water.”
Around one in five children in the UK are obese, while roughly one third are overweight.
Sugary drinks were a particularly important “target” for combating the problem, Professor Jebb said, with clear links between their consumption and the risk of weight gain.
“We also have a plausible mechanism for that effect because liquid calories are known to be less satiating than solid calories – they fill you up less,” she said.
Public health officials will issue new advice on sugar reduction tomorrow, as well as new guidance on foods high in carbohydrates such as bread and rice.
Professor Jebb said that “action” needed to be taken on sugary drinks, both “classic carbonated beverages”, and also energy drinks and sports drinks. She added that a tax on sugary drinks was a feasible option but insisted that more focus should go on encouraging people to change their eating and drinking behaviour.
Professor Tom Sanders, head of diabetes and nutritional sciences at Kings College London, said that there was a particular problem with the marketing of sugary drinks – particularly during sporting events. Among sponsors for the World Cup in Brazil for instance, Coca Cola is an official corporate partner of FIFA, while McDonalds is an official sponsor of the World Cup.
He said such marketing gave the impression that drinks high in sugar could support an active, sporty lifestyle and also warned over the sugar content of many drinks marketed as sports or energy drinks.
“We have the World Cup going on at the moment. Some of these energy drinks are extremely high in sugar containing between 60 and 70 grams of sugar in a single bottle,” he said. “That is a problem we are going to have to deal with – how these foods are marketed and how they are presented.”
He highlighted Lucozade’s Melonade, which contains 47 grams of sugar per 380ml serving – more than half an adult’s daily guideline allowance – and is also available in 500ml and 1l bottles.
Professor Sanders agreed that parents should be “weaning” children off squash and pop which he said should be considered a treat and not an alternative to water.
“A glass of orange juice at breakfast is okay, but on the dinner table, [families should have] just a jug of water and maybe milk for younger children,” he said.