TUESDAY, Nov. 14, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Consumption of sodas and other sweet drinks -- a big source of sugar in Americans' diets -- has dropped in the past decade among both kids and adults, researchers find.
Overall, the number of adults who said they drank a sugary beverage on a daily basis dropped by 12 percentage points between 2003 and 2014, Harvard researchers said, and by 19 percentage points among kids.
"People's preferences are shifting," said Sara Bleich, a professor of public health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Beverage consumption overall is going down, in addition to sugary beverage consumption. It may be that messages about beverages are starting to get through to people."
However, despite this drop in sugary drink consumption, the obesity epidemic continues apace, with more obese middle-aged people, young adults and children than ever before, Bleich noted.
Americans are still consuming too many calories. "Even if beverages overall are going down, we are eating too much. And it's because we are eating too much that obesity continues to rise," she said.
The report was published online Nov. 14 in the journal Obesity.
Samantha Heller is a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. She said, "The good news is the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has declined in the U.S. The bad news is we still have more work to do because sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest contributor to added sugars in the U.S. and are highly associated with obesity."
Reducing the amount of these drinks that people consume could have a significant effect on obesity, Heller noted, as long as they are replaced with healthier options -- such as water, seltzer, tea or milk.
Using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2003 to 2014, Bleich and her colleagues collected information on 18,600 children aged 2 to 19, and more than 27,600 adults 20 or older.
The participants were asked about what drinks they had consumed in the past day -- including sugar-sweetened drinks, 100-percent juice, diet drinks, milk (including flavored milk), unsweetened coffee or tea, alcohol and water.
In 2003-2004, nearly 80 percent of children and 62 percent of adults said they had a sugar-sweetened drink on a given day.
That had dropped to about 61 percent of children and 50 percent of adults by 2013-2014, the findings showed.
Despite this drop, teens and young adults still consumed more than the recommended amount of added sugar set by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Bleich said.
According to the American Heart Association, adults should not have more than six to nine teaspoons of sugar a day -- including sugar in everything you eat and drink. Most Americans consume about 20 teaspoons of sugar a day.
And children should not have more than four teaspoons of sugar a day.
The biggest drop in the consumption of sugary drinks was among white adults of almost all ages, Bleich said. Consumption of sugary drinks remained high among blacks, Mexican Americans and Hispanic teens -- groups at high risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Bleich said these groups tend to live in poorer areas where access to cheap sugary drinks is abundant.
"There is an effect over time where you get conditioned to drinking sugary beverages, and it becomes a regular part of life, as opposed to drinking water and other things that don't have calories in them," she said.
The overall reduction in consumption of sugary drinks was offset by an increase in kids drinking more milk, and kids and adults drinking more water -- both positive trends, Bleich noted.
Heller believes that parents can influence the choice of drinks their children prefer simply by choosing unsweetened drinks themselves. For instance, "studies have found that children's frequency of water intake is strongly influenced by parenting practices and parental role modeling," she said.
"There is no reason for children to be drinking sodas (diet or regular), chocolate milk or fruity drinks," Heller said, adding that, when raised drinking water, milk or unsweetened, plant-based milks, children are generally perfectly happy with these choices.
"Eventually, they will be exposed to sugar-sweetened beverages," she said, "but hopefully the healthier habits they learned when little will prevail."
The American Heart Association has more on sugar.