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Unhealthy food and beverage consumption in children and risk of overweight and obesity: A systematic review and meta-analysis

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This WHO-commissioned review contributed to the update of complementary feeding recommendations, synthesizing evidence on effects of unhealthy food and beverage consumption in children on overweight and obesity. We searched PubMed (Medline), Cochrane CENTRAL, and Embase for articles, irrespective of language or geography. Inclusion criteria were: 1) randomized controlled trials (RCTs), non-RCTs, cohort studies, and pre/post studies with control; 2) participants aged ≤10.9 y at exposure; 3) studies reporting greater consumption of unhealthy foods/beverages compared with no or low consumption; 4) studies assessing anthropometric and/or body composition; and 5) publication date ≥1971. Unhealthy foods and beverages were defined using nutrient- and food-based approaches. Risk of bias was assessed using the ROBINS-I (risk of bias in nonrandomized studies of interventions version I) and RoB2 [Cochrane RoB (version 2)] tools for nonrandomized and randomized studies, respectively. Narrative synthesis was complemented by meta-analyses where appropriate. Certainty of evidence was assessed using Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation. Of 26,542 identified citations, 60 studies from 71 articles were included. Most studies were observational (59/60), and no included studies were from low-income countries. The evidence base was low quality, as assessed by ROBINS-I and RoB2 tools. Evidence synthesis was limited by the different interventions and comparators across studies. Evidence indicated that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and unhealthy foods in childhood may increase BMI/BMI z-score, percentage body fat, or odds of overweight/obesity (low certainty of evidence). Artificially sweetened beverages and 100% fruit juice consumption make little/no difference to BMI, percentage body fat, or overweight/obesity outcomes (low certainty of evidence). Meta-analyses of a subset of studies indicated a positive association between SSB intake and percentage body fat, but no association with change in BMI and BMI z-score. High-quality epidemiological studies that are designed to assess the effects of unhealthy food consumption during childhood on risk of overweight/obesity are needed to contribute to a more robust evidence base upon which to design policy recommendations. This protocol was registered at https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/PROSPERO as CRD42020218109.


Food and Nutrition Action in Health Systems Unit, Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, WHO

NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

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Advances in Nutrition


Oxford University Press (OUP)


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This is an Open Access article published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Nutrition and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Adv Nutr 2022;00:1–28; doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmac032.

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Prof Emily Rousham. Deposit date: 12 September 2022

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