Drink Preschool children who regularly have sugary drinks tend to pack on more pounds than other youngsters, a large study of U.S. children suggests.

Researchers found that among the 2- to 5-year-olds they followed, those who routinely had sugar-sweetened drinks at age 5 were 43 percent more likely to beobese than their peers who rarely had those drinks.

In addition, 2-year-olds who downed at least one sugary drink a day gained moreweight over the next few years than their peers.

The results, reported online Aug. 5 and in the September print issue of the journalPediatrics, add to evidence tying sugar-laden drinks to excess pounds in older kids. And although the study cannot prove it’s the beverages causing the added weight, experts said parents should opt for water and milk to quench preschoolers’ thirst.

“We can’t say for sure that cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages would prevent excess weight gain,” said lead researcher Dr. Mark DeBoer, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“[But] there are healthy sources of calories, and there are less healthy sources,” he said. “Sugar-sweetened beverages don’t have other nutritional benefits.”

Water, on the hand, is a sugar-free way for kids to hydrate. “And milk,” DeBoer said, “has vitamin D, protein and calcium.” Plus, he added, the protein and fat in milk make young children feel full, so they may eat less than they do when their diets are filled with sugary — but less satisfying — drinks.

Plenty of factors influence childhood obesity, including genes, overall diet andphysical activity, said Dr. Anisha Patel, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

“[But] sugar-sweetened beverages stand out as one of the main contributors to obesity,” she said.

They’re tasty, cheap and well-advertised, said Patel, who co-wrote an editorial on the study with Lorrene Ritchie, a registered dietitian at the University of California, Berkeley.

Patel said that, based on federal government research, U.S. kids would slash 235 daily calories from their diets if they swapped sugary drinks or 100 percent fruit juice for water.

“That is about the equivalent of walking for an hour,” Patel said.

The current findings are based on 9,600 kids taking part in a government-sponsored study. DeBoer’s team looked at the relationship between kids’ sugary drink intake — as reported by their moms — and their weight changes.

Overall, about 15 percent of the children were overweight at any age, and a similar number were obese. At age 5, children who downed at least one sugary drink per day were 43 percent more likely to be obese than those who rarely had sweetened drinks.

That was with certain other factors, such as family income and TV viewing, taken into account.

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