LOS ANGELES — As public health leaders step up their efforts to temper Americans' thirst for sugar-sweetened beverages, a new set of published studies has found that removing sugary drinks from kids' diets slows weight gain in heavy teens and reduces the odds that normal-weight children will become obese.
Although sodas, sports drinks, blended coffees and other high-calorie beverages have long been assumed to play a leading role in the nation's obesity crisis, the three studies are the first to show that consumption of sugary drinks is a direct cause of weight gain, experts said.
For adults, the new research offers the disturbing suggestion that regular consumption of the high-calorie beverages may turn on genetic switches that incline our bodies to becoming fat.
Collectively, the studies leave little doubt that a steady surge in the consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks has contributed to the near-tripling of the nation's obesity rate over the last four decades.
"Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages do matter," Yale University endocrinologist Sonia Caprio wrote in an editorial that accompanied the studies, published online Friday by the New England Journal of Medicine. "The time has come to take action."
Admonishing purveyors of crowd-pleasing super-sized drinks, Caprio also urged policymakers to focus first on measures that "limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, especially those served at low cost and in excessive portions, to attempt to reverse the increase in childhood obesity."
Not surprisingly, the new studies unleashed a storm of objection from the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.
"Sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving obesity," the American Beverage Association, which represents the soda makers, said in a statement released Friday. "… Sugar-sweetened beverages play a small and declining role in the American diet."