Teen Girls Can Put Down the Pop and Protect Their Bones

June 14, 2000 -- Grace Wyshak, PhD, doesn't think it's going too far to call it a major public health concern for teen-agers and older women. Drinking soft drinks appear to increase the risk of broken bones and osteoporosis.

Wyshak, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, found there was a close association between drinking of soft drinks, particularly dark colas, and a threefold risk of broken bones in teen-age girls. If the girls were physically active, the risk rose to nearly fivefold. In other words, teens that consume soft drinks have three times or five times the risk of breaking a bone compared to their peers who do not drink the carbonated beverages.

In her study, appearing in the June issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Wyshak found that nearly two-thirds of the 460 high school girls she surveyed drank soft drinks. About half the girls studied drank dark colas only. Fifteen percent drank both colas and other soft drinks, and 12% drank non-colas only.

"Adolescence is a very critical time for bone development and anything that can affect the bone development ? can have long-standing effects in the future," she tells WebMD. "These findings suggest that osteoporosis is not only a disease [of the old], but a disease [of the young] as well." Wyshak is also an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Mary Burton, MD, a pediatrician with the St. John Health System in Detroit, says that the adolescent mind-set is not geared toward future consequences of present-day actions. "It's hard to impress upon them that they have to do something now that's going to affect their life 40 or 60 years from now," she says.

Burton says that the idea that osteoporosis may affect young people is the most startling point of Wyshak's study. She tells WebMD that encouraging calcium intake in young women is very important. The study demonstrates the potential long-range effects of teens chugging soda pop to the exclusion of good nutrition.

Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens bones and therefore increases a person's risk of breaking them. It's especially common in elderly women. Eating a well-balanced diet and exercising helps to prevent osteoporosis.

Getting enough calcium is crucial too. The recommended intake of calcium for girls aged 9 to 18 is 1,300 milligrams per day. However, it's estimated that most teen-age girls only get about 800 milligrams each day.

Milk is the main calcium source in the diet, but many young women don't like milk or have stomach problems when they drink it. Burton points out other sources that will supply enough calcium, including calcium-fortified orange juices, some cereals, and chewable chocolate fudge squares such as Viactiv. And, of course, there's always calcium supplements in pill form.

"However, no matter how many supplements they add, nothing beats a healthy diet," Burton emphasizes.

It is not known exactly what components of soft drinks cause this decrease in calcium. Some people, Wyshak points out, have suggested that another mineral, called phosphorus, is also found in soft drinks and may eat away calcium from the bones. Whatever the reason, Burton sees the study as a wakeup call for pediatricians, family practitioners, and parents.

Robert Bruce, MD, who, like Burton, was not associated with Wyshak's study, tells WebMD that the numbers from Wyshak's survey are astounding. Bruce is an assistant professor and chief of pediatric orthopaedic surgery at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Parents can do a lot to ensure their teens get the proper amount of calcium, and they can limit the number of soft drinks they consume. "Cutting back on soft drink consumption to a reasonable level of one a day and increasing calcium and vitamin D" in the diet are two simple ways, Bruce says. Parents can make also make sure their children are starting to develop proper nutritional habits. "You are in control until your child has access to the keys," he adds.

Wyshak says she hopes someone will expand on her research, as she sees this as a major public health problem with long-term consequences. These young girls may easily be the old women with osteoporosis, if her findings pan out.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers say teen-age girls who drank soft drinks were three times more likely to suffer a broken bone than those who didn't drink soft drinks. If the teens were physically active, the risk jumped to five times as likely.
  • Teen girls reportedly only consume two-thirds of the daily requirement of calcium, which is crucial for healthy bones.
  • Observers say they are surprised osteoporosis can affect these young people. Besides limiting soft drink intake, they recommend girls get more calcium and vitamin D, which works with calcium for healthy bones, in their diet.