A Deakin University study of more than 3000 children has shown kids in Australia’s lowest socioeconomic group are far more likely to consume sugary drinks and savoury junk food than their wealthier peers, leading to much higher rates of obesity.
The research, published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology, showed half of the children in Australia’s poorest demographic were consuming sweet drinks before their first birthday, against nutritional guidelines.
Lead author Alexandra Chung, a visiting researcher in Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre and PhD candidate at Monash University, said existing data showed children in Australia’s lowest socioeconomic group were twice as likely to be overweight or obese as those in the highest.
“One in three children with a low socioeconomic position are overweight or obese at age 10 to 11 years compared to one in six children with a high socioeconomic position,” she said.
Ms Chung said her new research aimed to determine the drivers of this disparity, with a particular focus on children’s consumption of “discretionary foods”.
“Previous studies have examined relationships between socioeconomic position, diet and children’s weight at certain points in time,” she said.
“This is the first study to demonstrate the effect of cumulative consumption of discretionary food and drinks, from birth and throughout childhood, on socioeconomic differences in children’s weight.”
As part of the study, researchers from Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre analysed data from the nationally-representative Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
From a sample of 3190 children they examined the socioeconomic position of each child, their standardised BMI and the type of discretionary food they consumed in the 24 hours prior to the survey.
A pathway analysis was used to breakdown the individual components of what was driving obesity, and found that sweet drink and savoury junk food consumption was to blame for 11 per cent of the weight disparity between rich and poor.
“We found that for children from birth to one year, half of those in the lowest socioeconomic group were regularly consuming sweet drinks, compared to a quarter in the highest group, and this increased with age,” Ms Chung said.
“A socioeconomic gradient is also evident in the consumption of a number of discretionary food items including hot food and savoury snacks (hot chips, sausage rolls, potato crisps), with a greater number of kids from poorer groups consuming these foods at all ages throughout childhood.”
Ms Chung said the study provided another piece of evidence to support the call for the government to take urgent action on measures to limit children’s consumption of sugary drinks.
“We also need more research to better understand how to support families to choose water for their children over sweet drinks,” she said.
“Our conversations with parents so far tell us that they want support in terms of skills and education, decreased availability of sweet drinks in the settings they frequent (such as supermarkets) and bans on marketing targeted towards children.
“That also includes supporting policies that keep childcare centres, kindergartens and schools free of sugary drinks, and the introduction of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax.”
Co-author Dr Kathryn Backholer, a Senior Research Fellow in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, said developing healthy dietary habits from an early age was critical because taste preferences were established in early childhood.
“Children who are overweight or obese are likely to remain overweight as adults, so we need to be addressing this serious public health issue, right from the start,” Dr Backholer said.