Both fat and sugar are important contributors to obesity in children and teenagers, rather than sugar alone, according to new research from The University of Western Australia.
The study, published in The Journal of Nutrition looked at the food diaries of 6722 children in the UK and found a high intake of both sugar and fat increased child obesity risk, probably through what scientists have labelled a ‘hedonic synergy’, or sensory pleasure from eating certain foods.
Associate Professor Gina Ambrosini from UWA’s School of Population Health said sugar and fat made foods such as cakes, doughnuts and chocolate hard to resist, undermining an individual’s ability to control their cravings and their overall energy intake.
Associate Professor Ambrosini said the research kicked off following recent debate that sugar is the biggest culprit when it comes to obesity in children and adolescents.
“We looked at the overall dietary patterns of thousands of children who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Children and Parents in the UK,” she said.
“We found those consuming an energy-dense diet that was high in calories, sugar and fat were more prone to being overweight or obese than those with a diet high in sugar but lower in fat.”
“While our study does not support the contention that sugar has a unique role in the cause of obesity, it does need to be considered as part of the overall dietary pattern.”
Associate Professor Ambrosini said food groups carrying the largest risk for childhood obesity included confectionery and chocolate, cakes and biscuits, sugar-sweetened drinks, crisps, low-fibre breads and low-fibre breakfast cereals, while those that decreased obesity risk included fruits, vegetables, high-fibre breakfast cereals and high-fibre breads.
“While this might sound obvious, we observed that replacing, for example, a slice of cake with a piece of fruit each day, can make a difference to a child’s fat mass over time,” she said.
The study, which also included researchers from the UK Medical Research Council (Cambridge), Bristol University and Oxford University, has called for urgently needed public health interventions to limit the consumption of dietary sugar and fat and to boost fibre.
“There’s no doubt that obesity in childhood and adolescence is a serious and pressing health concern and is associated with a greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke along with a number of other disorders in adulthood,” Associate Professor Ambrosini said.