New review suggests proven ways to cut back on sugary drinks

(Reuters Health) - With sugary sodas and other sweetened drinks considered a key driver of the obesity epidemic worldwide, a new research review evaluates how well various measures work to reduce consumption of these calorie laden drinks.

Strategies including limited availability of sodas in schools, removal from children’s menus at restaurants and better labeling could help reduce consumption, according to the analysis published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

The authors of the new report did not respond to requests for an interview. Study coauthor Hans Hauner said in a statement, “Rates of obesity and diabetes are rising globally, and this trend will not be reversed without broad and effective action.” Hauner, a professor of nutritional medicine at the Technical University Munich, added, “Governments and industry in particular must do their part to make the healthy choice the easy choice for consumers. This review highlights key measures that can help accomplish this.”

The researchers pored through the literature seeking studies that evaluated so-called environmental strategies for reducing sugary drink consumption - meaning interventions that change the physical or social setting in which a person chooses what drink to consume or buy. Fifty-eight studies involving a total of more than 1 million adults, teens and children met their criteria. Most lasted about a year and were done in schools, stores or restaurants.

Some of the studies were less well designed, the researchers allowed, simply asking participants how much sugary soda they consumed, for example.

Ultimately, the researchers found moderate-to-low-certainty evidence supporting a number of measures that appeared to help people cut back on sugary drinks. These included: labels that were easy to understand and that rated the healthfulness of beverages; limits on availability of sugary sodas in schools; price increases on sugary sodas in restaurants, stores and leisure centers; inclusions of healthier beverages in children’s menus; and promotion of healthier beverages in supermarkets.

Strategies that raise the price of sugar-sweetened drinks were also supported by moderate-quality evidence while lowering prices on low-calorie drinks was not as well supported.

The new study “lays out evidence that there are things that actually do work,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, executive director of the Global Obesity Center and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

What makes these sugary beverages especially bad for health is the fact that they represent “empty calories,” said Lee, who was not involved in the review. “So you’re essentially drinking sugar.”

While these strategies may not be the entire solution, “we are clearly having an obesity and diabetes epidemic,” said Dr. Robert Rapaport, a professor of pediatrics and director of the division of pediatric endocrinology and diabetes at the Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Anything that can be done to improve that would certainly be welcome.”

Rapaport welcomes strategies such as removing sugary drinks from schools and making labels easier to read. In general, he said, it makes sense to “tell children to drink water. If they want it with carbonation and flavors that’s fine. All are preferred to having drinks that contain high calories.”

The new study highlights the importance of education, especially for kids, said Shelly Kendra, clinical nutrition manager at the Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who also wasn’t involved in the review. “What we learn as kids is what we’re going to carry with us into adulthood,” Kendra said. “Having an environment to help support that is potentially creating the building blocks to healthier choices.”

SOURCE: The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, online June 12, 2019.