Sugar is not the main culprit when it comes to the growing problem of adolescent obesity despite suggestions that it is a more important risk factor than dietary fat.

Instead, a diet high in both fat and sugar is more likely than sugar alone to cause teenage obesity, a study of almost 7000 children shows.

The findings appear to confirm the role of both fat and sugar and provide a basis for food-based dietary guidelines to prevent obesity in children, the researchers say.

Their analysis extends previous work in a large population-based group of children by identifying and contrasting 2 major diet patterns. Both were high in free sugars but differed in fat intake.

“Only the energy-dense diet pattern that was high in both sugar and fat was [. . .] associated with a greater fat mass index and increased risk of excess adiposity between 7 and 15 years of age,” write the researchers led by Associate Professor Gina Ambrosini from the University of Western Australia.

In contrast, a diet similarly high in free sugars but lower in energy from total fat and energy density was not associated with carrying excess fat.

This highlights the joint importance of fat and sugar as determinants of obesity in childhood, they say.

Snack foods like confectionary and chocolate, cakes and biscuits, soft drinks, chips, sugary breakfast cereals, and to a lesser extent low fibre breads, were the food groups most likely to confer a greater adiposity risk.

“No big surprises here,” says Dr Ambrosini of the findings.

“If you have a high-sugar diet, the chances are you also have a diet high in fat. They tend to go hand-in-hand.

“Teenagers like to snack but they are getting too many calories through unhealthy snacks and they are not eating enough fibre.”

Public health interventions to limit the consumption of sugar, together with dietary fat, and to boost fibre are urgently needed, write the study authors in the Journal of Nutrition.

Last Reviewed: 04/04/2016

Reproduced with kind permission from


Ambrosini GL, et al. Free Sugars and Total Fat Are Important Characteristics of a Dietary Pattern Associated with Adiposity across Childhood and Adolescence. J Nutr. 2016 Mar 9. pii: jn224659