A common sugar used as a sweetener in foods and drinks gave adolescents more belly fat and put them at higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, according to research at Georgia Health Sciences University.
In a study to be published next month in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers at GHSU’s Georgia Prevention Institute followed 559 adolescents and their consumption of fructose, a sugar commonly added to foods and drinks as high fructose corn syrup. In measuring their fat, those with higher fructose consumption added more visceral adipose tissue, often found in the abdomen and around the organs. Those students had higher resting blood pressure and levels of c-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. They had lower levels of HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol thought to be protective, and adiponectin, which promotes insulin sensitivity and is anti-inflammatory. Those factors put them at greater risk for developing cardiovsascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Unlike previous studies, the researchers also looked at sucrose, or table sugar, in the diet, which breaks down into fructose and glucose, said author Vanessa Bundy, a first-year resident physician in pediatrics at GHSU.
“We think that they were missing a huge component of fructose in the diet by not accounting for the fructose that comes along in the form of sucrose,” she said.
The sweetener has been increasingly added to food and drinks since the 1970s, and there has also been a monumental increase in obesity over that period, but there still needs to be proof the two are connected, said study lead author Norman Pollock, an assistant professor of pediatrics at GHSU and the institute.
“Even though it is parallel, we still have to provide the data,” he said.
Some previous studies have shown an association between increased fructose consumption and blood pressure while others have not. But almost all of those were in adults, Pollock said.
“There is not much data in children and adolescents,” he said, but the studies note adolescents consume more fructose than any other age group.
The study could have important implications for school systems, Pollock said.
“Ultimately we want to use this paper and other papers to kind of change politically how food is distributed into the schools, and the types of foods, to cut down on these specific types of foods with high fructose corn syrup in them,” he said.
A big culprit is sodas. In Richmond County schools, most of the elementary and middle schools do not have soda in the machines. At the high schools, Board of Education policy is to not sell carbonated beverages while school is in session, spokesman Louis Svehla said.
The GHSU study was looking at the visceral fat versus fat stored elsewhere in the body and it found the same association with risk factors in adolescents that has been shown with adults, Bundy said. That means that what kids are consuming now could be a factor later and should send a clear message to parents, she said.
“It’s so very important to provide low-sugar, high-quality foods to your children because what you provide for them today will potentially affect their cardiovascular status and their overall quality of life as adults,” Bundy said.