New Research Highlights Importance of Sugar Source in Childhood Obesity

New research presented at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Venice, Italy, has shed light on a critical aspect of childhood nutrition: the source of sugar. The study, conducted by Junyang Zou and colleagues from the University of Groningen and University Medical Center Groningen, challenges conventional wisdom regarding sugar consumption and its relationship to childhood obesity.

The type of sugar might matter more than the amount

The study, which examined data from the GEKCO Drenthe study, a longitudinal investigation tracking children born in the northern Netherlands, scrutinized the impact of sugar consumption from various sources on weight gain and the development of obesity. Surprisingly, the research suggests that the type of sugar consumed may be more influential than the total amount.

Contrary to common assumptions, the study found that the overall quantity of sugar consumed during early childhood did not correlate with weight status at age 10 or 11. However, the source of sugar emerged as a significant factor.

Zou elaborated:

The high consumption of sugary foods is considered a risk factor for childhood overweight and obesity and so children are advised to consume less sugar-rich foods, such as confectionery, cakes and sugar-sweetened drinks, and eat more fruit and unsweetened dairy products, such as milk and yogurt.

But while fruit and unsweetened dairy products are considered healthy, they contain high amounts of intrinsic sugars — sugar that occurs naturally in the food, rather than being added. We wanted to know if the source of sugar, added versus intrinsic, as well as the amount, affects the likelihood of developing overweight or obesity.

The research underscores the importance of distinguishing between intrinsic sugars and added sugars found in processed treats and beverages. While both fruit and unsweetened dairy products contain intrinsic sugars, they also offer essential nutrients and may confer protective effects against obesity.

Study results in more detail

Drawing upon data from the GECKO Drenthe study — an extensive longitudinal investigation tracking children born between 2006 and 2007 in the northern Netherlands — Zou and colleagues meticulously analyzed the dietary habits of 817 children who maintained a healthy weight at age 3. The findings yielded compelling insights into the diverse sources of sugar and their distinct effects on weight status.

On average, these children consumed 112 grams of sugar daily, comprising a blend of natural and added sugars. Among the primary sources identified were sugar-sweetened beverages, dairy products, sugary snacks, and fruits. Surprisingly, while total sugar intake at age 3 did not exhibit a significant correlation with BMI at ages 10 and 11, the source of sugar emerged as a critical determinant of weight status.

Notably, children who derived a higher proportion of their sugar intake from whole fruits demonstrated lower BMI scores and experienced less weight gain as they approached adolescence. Similarly, those who consumed more sugars from unsweetened liquid dairy products, such as milk, exhibited a reduced risk of developing obesity or overweight status.

Conversely, sugar intake from sugary snacks was associated with higher BMI scores, underscoring the detrimental impact of added sugars found in processed foods. Despite the study’s observational nature, the findings offer valuable insights into the nuanced relationship between sugar consumption and childhood obesity.

The bottom line

The research presented at the ECO highlights the critical role of sugar sources in the development of obesity during childhood. It also underscores the imperative of reevaluating dietary recommendations to prioritize nutrient-rich sources of sugar, such as fruits and unsweetened dairy products, while minimizing the consumption of sugary snacks and beverages. By empowering parents, healthcare professionals, and policymakers with evidence-based insights, we can chart a course toward a healthier future for our children — one sweet choice at a time.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Understanding the role of sugar sources in development of childhood obesity,”, 05/13/24
Source: “Kids’ Obesity Risk Depends on Source of Sugar, Not the Amount,” Newsweek, 05/13/24
Image by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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