Sweet drinks fuel obesity gap

Improving Health and Wellbeing

Children in Australia’s lowest socioeconomic group are consuming more sugary drinks and savoury junk food than their wealthier peers, leading to much higher rates of obesity.

Research from the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) within Deakin University’s Centre for Population Health Research has revealed that half of the children in Australia’s poorest demographic are consuming sweet drinks before their first birthday, against nutritional guidelines.

Lead author Alexandra Chung, a visiting researcher in GLOBE and a PhD candidate at Monash University, said existing data showed children in Australia’s lowest socioeconomic group were twice as likely to be overweight or obese as those in the highest.

‘One in three children with a low socioeconomic position are overweight or obese at age 10 to 11 years compared to one in six children with a high socioeconomic position,’ she said, adding that her new research aimed to determine the drivers of this disparity, with a particular focus on children’s consumption of ‘discretionary foods’.

The study, published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology is the first to demonstrate the effect of cumulative consumption of discretionary food and drinks, from birth and throughout childhood, on socioeconomic differences in children’s weight.

Previous studies have examined relationships between socioeconomic position, diet and children’s weight at certain points in time.

As part of the study, researchers from GLOBE analysed data from the nationally-representative Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.

From a sample of 3190 children they examined the socioeconomic position of each child, their standardised BMI and the type of discretionary food they consumed in the 24 hours prior to the survey.

A pathway analysis was used to breakdown the individual components of what was driving obesity, and found that sweet drink and savoury junk food consumption was to blame for 11 per cent of the weight disparity between rich and poor.

“We found that for children from birth to one year, half of those in the lowest socioeconomic group were regularly consuming sweet drinks, compared to a quarter in the highest group, and this increased with age.”
Ms Alexandra Chung
Ms Alexandra Chung GLOBE Visiting Researcher

‘A socioeconomic gradient is also evident in the consumption of a number of discretionary food items, including hot food and savoury snacks like hot chips, sausage rolls and potato crisps, with a greater number of kids from poorer groups consuming these foods at all ages throughout childhood,’ Ms Chung said.

Ms Chung said the study provided another piece of evidence to support the call for the government to take urgent action on measures to limit children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

‘We also need more research to better understand how to support families to choose water for their children over sweet drinks. Our conversations with parents so far tell us that they want support in terms of skills and education, decreased availability of sweet drinks in the settings they frequent, such as supermarkets, and bans on marketing targeted towards children,’ she said.

‘That also includes supporting policies that keep childcare centres, kindergartens and schools free of sugary drinks, and the introduction of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax.’

Co-author Dr Kathryn Backholer, a Senior Research Fellow in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, said developing healthy dietary habits from an early age was critical because taste preferences were established in early childhood.

“Children who are overweight or obese are likely to remain overweight as adults, so we need to be addressing this serious public health issue right from the start.”
Dr Kathryn Backholer Senior Research Fellow in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development

Published by Deakin Research on 5 March 2018

Centre for Population Health Research

The Centre for Population Health Research (CPHR) contributes to health improvements for Australian and global populations through its extensive and diverse portfolio of research activities in public health, implementation, knowledge translation and advocacy, training and expert advisory services.