While most people know that soft drinks are not a healthy beverage choice, a University of Columbia study now suggests that these beverages may induce violent, withdrawn and distracted behaviour in children as young as five.

The study – written by researchers Shakira F. Suglia, Sara Solnick and David Hemenway – was recently published in the US-based Journal of Pediatrics. It discusses how five-year-olds were two times more likely to exhibit violent behaviour and have trouble concentrating after consuming four or more servings of cola.

While there have been other studies that have looked at the negative impacts of carbonated sodas on children, this was the first of its kind to study such a large sample of young children – nearly 3,000 five-year-old children from cities across the US.

While they caution that more study needs to be done, their findings are startling:

“We found significant relationships between soda consumption with the overall measure of aggression and with the three specific behaviours that we consider most indicative of aggression: destroying things belonging to others, getting into fights, and physically attacking people,” they wrote.

Children who consumed the highest quantities of soda also were more likely to exhibit attention problems and withdrawal behaviour.

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services discourages consumption of beverages with high sugar and caffeine content.

“Soft drinks are something that I like to call empty nutrient drinks because they have a lot of sugar. While they do provide a lot of energy, there is no other nutritional benefit,” said CBHSS dietician Sonia Lu.

Lu says that because a five-year-old has such a small stomach, it is important to make every calorie count, packing it with the most nutrition as possible. Most people, large or small, shouldn’t consume more than 13 teaspoons of sugar per day, according to the Dieticians of Canada website. But there are other factors in cola to consider.

“It is reasonable to make that correlation given that in the study those children had a lot of soft drinks so I am thinking that they were definitely over the limit for the amount of sugar and the caffeine content. And, like I mentioned before, too much caffeine is known to have behavioural effects,” said Lu. “The daily recommended dose of caffeine set out by Health Canada for children according to their age groups states that a child should not exceed one or two 355 ml cans of cola per day.”

As this study suggests, cola can affect a child’s behaviour and their ability to concentrate, soft drinks are discouraged before or during the school day.

Lu did say that the occasional single serving of soda for a young child might be okay as a treat, if you are looking to see your child excel in school, a better choice might be water or milk, served with a nutritious breakfast.

“Children should have a healthy breakfast because they will be more likely to get the nutrients they need if they start out this way each day. I tell parents to aim for at least three of the four food groups per meal each day. For example, children could have oatmeal prepared with milk,” said Lu.