Soda Consumption Linked to Violence in Teens

Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

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Soda Consumption Linked to Violence in Teens
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Is it the chicken or the egg? Is regular soda consumption a reflection of the lifestyle and economic circumstances of the more violent segments of our teenagers or is the soda part of the violence problem? These are the questions that will now be raised after data coming from Boston and Minnesota came up with essentially the same conclusion; regular consumption of soda is associated with significant increases in violent behavior – even after controlling for race, economic status, smoking, and alcohol consumption.

Branded flavors rely on chemical neurostimulants to create brand addiction. These chemicals also cause brain inflammation. High levels of sweeteners cause fluctuating blood sugar levels and that will disrupt brain function as well. Thus, there are several clear mechanisms by which soda drinks can cause irritated and impaired brain function, leading to increased risk for the use of violence as a “problem solving” strategy.

The following is a reprint of an article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune that explains the two studies.

Study shows higher rates of violent acts among teens who drinks lots of pop
By JEREMY OLSON

Children and teens who drink a lot of soda pop are twice as likely to steal, beat someone up or bring a weapon to school compared to peers who don't drink it, according to a new review of Minnesota student survey data.

The data, compiled by state officials after an inquiry from the Star Tribune, is far from suggesting cause and effect. It is likely, researchers say, that other social or biological factors could make teens prone to both violence and drinking large amounts of soda.

But when coupled with a study released Tuesday, which evaluated similar survey results in Boston, the data provides some of the first published evidence that soda consumption has any relationship to youth aggression.

"If we want to understand youth violence and we want to reduce it, then we want to look at everything that can impact it," said Sara Solnick, chairwoman of the University of Vermont's economics department and co-author of the Boston study. "This was something that was not on the radar."

The Boston study was based on survey responses in 2008 by 1,878 teens in the 9th to 12th grades. Researchers compared students' self-reported violent behaviors to the cans of non-diet carbonated beverages they said they consumed in the most recent seven-day period. (A 20 ounce bottle counted as two cans.)

The study, published in Injury Prevention, found the probability of violence was 9 to 15 percentage points higher among Boston teens who drank five or more cans in a one-week period than among teens who drank four or fewer of the beverages. (Violence was defined as whether students carried weapons in the past year or attacked classmates, young relatives or people they were dating.)

The industry-backed American Council on Science and Health responded quickly, calling Solnick's results "flawed," in part because they were based on self-reports from students who can exaggerate. "It's a shame this poor excuse for science got so much attention," said the council's Dr. Gilbert Ross.

But a similar pattern shows up in data from Minnesota youth surveys.

After the announcement of the Boston study, the Star Tribune requested similar data from the Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees a survey of students every three years in Minnesota public schools.

Minnesota findings included:
-Among students who drank no soda in the day before they completed the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, 17 percent admitted "beating up" someone in the prior year. That number jumped to 37 percent among students who drank three or more sodas in the prior day.
-5.5 percent of sixth-graders who drank no soda in the previous day said they had run away from home at least once in the prior year. The number jumped to 17.3 percent among those who drank at least three glasses of soda.
-13.3 percent of the no-soda students reported they had stolen something in the previous year; that number was 30.7 percent for the heavy soda drinkers.

(The Minnesota and Boston surveys are not identical. Students in Boston were asked about soda consumption in the prior week; Minnesota students in the prior day. Boston students were asked about cans of non-diet drinks. The Minnesota survey used "glasses" as the serving size, and wasn't specific about the type of soda consumed. Most of the responding students in Boston were inner-city minorities. The Minnesota survey was conducted statewide.)

The Minnesota student data was provided to the Star Tribune in raw form, meaning it was not weighted to account for demographic factors such as race or economic status. That leaves open the possibility, for example, that soda consumption is simply more common among low-income students, who are also more prone, statistically, to violence.

National data has already shown higher rates of consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by certain ethnic, racial and low-income groups, said Mary Story, a University of Minnesota expert in youth dietary habits who was not involved with the Boston study.

"The association does not surprise me at all," Story said. "I think this is all about poverty. Poor children have a lot working against them. They are more likely to have a poor diet and drink more soda and sugary drinks."

The Boston study did weight the data to factor out race and gender, but not economic status. Heavy soda drinkers were also more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, factors that are strongly associated with violence. But Solnick said the relationship between soda consumption and aggression held up after accounting for those other factors.

Solnick agreed there is no reason to think soda consumption causes students to be aggressive. Anything from low blood sugar to poor parenting could cause students to pursue both habits - violence and soda - at the same time.

It's possible, she said, that soda consumption is a "red flag" of an overall poor diet, and that the absence of key nutrients makes students prone to aggression.

"Maybe," Solnick said, "the soda is just telling us what's not there."

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