Sugary drinks and the epidemic childhood obesity [Letter]

Reporter Meredith Cohn's recent article about the World Health Organization's new sugar recommendations highlighted the concerns of medical and public health experts over the epidemic of childhood obesity ("Officials urge consumers to cut back on sugar," March 21).

Sugar in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages is in fact the leading contributor to the obesity epidemic. According to the Institute of Medicine's 2012 report, a full 20 percent of the nation's weight increase since 1977 can be directly attributed to sugary drinks like soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and sweetened juices and teas.

The effects are devastating. Today in Maryland, one in three children is overweight or obese, and rates of teen diabetes have nearly tripled over the last decade. Children as young as 10 are being diagnosed with pre-diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, stroke and other chronic illnesses. These children are far more likely to become overweight or obese as adolescents and adults.

Moreover, the costs related to obesity are astronomic -- an estimated $300 billion nationwide in increased health care spending and lost productivity.

The challenge lies in the prevalence of these drinks in the places our kids live, learn and play. A treat is fine, but today these drinks have become an everyday item, and the industry feeds this habit by marketing them as part of -- or in the case of sports drinks, a prerequisite for -- a health lifestyle.

Just one sugary drink a day -- 8 ounces -- increases a child's risk of becoming obese by 60 percent and increases that child's risk of diabetes by 30 percent.

We cannot possibly burn off all the calories we're drinking. As Ms. Cohn notes, one can of cola has more than twice the recommended daily limit of sugar for an adult.

Sugar Free Kids, led by strong and effective partners at MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society, The Horizon Foundation, the American Heart Association, the NAACP and others, is poised to meet the challenge of reducing the consumption of sugary drinks and reversing the upward trend of childhood obesity and teen diabetes in Maryland.

Our coalition has introduced two bills in Annapolis to improve the quality of restaurant meals for kids and support obesity prevention efforts in child care centers.

The time is now. If we don't make changes, this may be the first generation of children in history to have shorter lives than their parents.

Robi M. Rawl, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of Sugar Free Kids.

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