August 23/Calgary, Alb./University of Alberta -- A new study finds that a child’s socioeconomic status, or watching a screen or monitor for more than two hours a days, is associated with a thirst for sugary soda and juice.

Researchers from the University of Alberta surveyed parents to assess the dietary habits of 1,800 preschoolers as part of a larger study on diet, physical activity and obesity.

Investigators discovered that 54.5% of four- and five-year-olds from poorer neighborhoods drank at least one soda per week -- far more than the 40.8% of kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Preschoolers from low-income areas also drank less milk and consumed more fruit juice, which, like soda, is linked to rising sugar intake associated with childhood obesity.

“When you’re looking at that age group, and such a large percentage of very young kids in the study are consuming a large amount of soda, it’s quite concerning,” said study co-author Dr. Kate Storey, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the School of Public Health.

“If you’re drinking a lot of soda and fruit juice, that can displace consumption of water and milk, which are important not just for quenching thirst, but for developing healthy bones and teeth, and health and wellness in general.”

Researchers say the study is part of a larger project looking at nutritional habits of preschoolers. Notably, this study is among the first to gather data on children of such an early age.

Researchers found similar soda habits among preschoolers who spent more than two hours of “screen time” per day -- watching TV or playing video games. They also discovered that kids from poorer neighborhoods sat in front of screens more often, and drank larger volumes of sweetened beverages.

“Dietary behavior and intake patterns are influenced heavily by what happens in the first few years with children, and they maintain those patterns throughout childhood and into adolescence,” said study co-author John C. Spence, Ph.D.

“In addition to basic health education, this study identifies a need in how we’re dealing with poverty and recognizing there’s more to poverty than simply the number of dollars people have.

“Many families live in places that might not be very healthy for them and, as a result, they make unhealthy food choices.”

In a companion study, researchers found that just 30% of children ate enough fruits and vegetables, and 23.5% consumed the recommended amount of servings of grain products.

However, the same problem did not exist with milk and meat or alternatives, as 91% and 94% of kids consumed recommended servings.

Again, a child’s social economic background was associated with eating junk food in a similar fashion to soda consumption.

As with sweetened beverages, children from low- and medium-income neighborhoods were more likely than kids in high-income areas to eat foods like potato chips, fries, candies and chocolate.

Those results presented an “alarming pattern,” said Spence, who suggests it is possible families are choosing high-calorie foods because they are cheap and convenient.

However, he added, the neighborhood itself could also be a factor in food choices.

“There are cities in North America where, literally, you have food deserts. If you wanted to go out and buy some lettuce and tomatoes, you’d have to travel very far -- very likely without a car.

“You’re not going to do that every time you want to get some food, so maybe you’re going to resort to the convenience store down the road.”

Researchers did find one silver lining, as children who attended daycare or kindergarten were significantly less likely to reach for junk food.

Storey said that illustrates how education can make a difference and lead to healthier eating habits, regardless of what’s happening at home.

“You can start making a difference in different places. It calls for action in multiple settings, schools and communities, for example. That light-bulb moment can happen in a variety of places.”