MONDAY, May 5, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- If you stock your refrigerator with fruit juices, you may be setting your kids up for a battle with obesity.
That's the suggestion of a new study finding that overweight children consume 65 percent more of the calorie-laden juices than thinner kids.
"Parents think that because fruit juices are natural that they are a healthy drink, so they don't put a limit on how much their children consume," says study author Dr. Sarita Dhuper, director of pediatric cardiology and the pediatric obesity clinic at the Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center.
In truth, however, Dhuper says fruit drinks are a major source of calories on their own. Moreover, she says, their high sugar content may increase a child's appetite for even greater amounts of food, thus further contributing to weight gain.
"Our study found that juice consumption is almost shocking. For some kids, there seems to be no limit to what they can drink in a given day," says Dhuper, who presented her findings May 3 at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Seattle.
Pediatric nutritionist Pam Birkenfeld agrees with the finding.
"Parents tend to think that because fruit juice is fat-free and comes from nature, it's OK. But what they often don't realize is that it is a very concentrated source of calories that generally does not fill you up, just out," says Birkenfeld, a dietician at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y.
Complicating matters further, Birkenfeld says some parents confuse fruit juice with fruit-flavored drinks -- beverages that can be even higher in calories and offer even less in the way of vitamins or other nutrients.
"It's not uncommon to hear parents refer to Kool-Aid or Hawaiian Punch as fruit juice," Birkenfeld says.
While both doctors agree there is room for some natural fruit juice in a child's diet, they say there can definitely be too much of a good thing.
"I think it's a matter of awareness. Parents just don't realize how calorie-laden fruit juices are and how much they contribute to the problem of childhood obesity, which is really reaching almost epidemic proportions," Dhuper says.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 21 percent to 23 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 are overweight and 9 percent to 13 percent are obese, and many doctors believe the problem is grossly under-diagnosed.
The new study involved 98 obese children aged 5 to 18, mostly blacks from low-to-middle income inner city families. Both the children and their parents were interviewed and a detailed food history was documented, including an average daily consumption of fruit juices.
The food histories were then compared with those from 80 normal-weight children in the same age group from a similar ethnic and income background.
Both groups exceeded the juice intake guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which is four to six ounces per day for children aged 1 to 6 and eight to 12 ounces daily for children aged 7 to 18.
The obese children far exceeded the recommended limit, consuming an average of 32.1 ounces per day, 65 percent more than normal-weight children, who drank an average of 19.4 ounces per day.
"In some obese children, juice consumption went as high as 50 ounces per day. There were just no limits," says Dhuper, who is convinced the excess juice played a major role in the children's weight problems. And, she says, it likely plays a significant role in the growing pediatric obesity problem in the United States today.
The study calls for parents to dramatically limit their children's juice consumption to meet the AAP guidelines, and for pediatricians to incorporate information on the links between fruit juices and obesity in all well-child visits.