CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. – Children between the ages of 2 and 5 who regularly drink sugary beverages are more likely to gain excessive weight and become obese, according to a study conducted by the University of Virginia School of Medicine and published on-line in the journal Pediatrics.

Based on a review of data from 9,600 children ages 2 to 5 in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey, the study found regular consumption of sugary drinks – defined as one or more 8-oz servings daily – was associated with higher body mass index (B.M.I.) scores in 4- and 5-year-olds. The study also found 5-year-olds who regularly had sugary drinks were more likely to be obese, and 2-year-olds who regularly drank sugar-sweetened beverages had larger increases in B.M.I. over the following two years than 2-year-olds who had sugary drinks infrequently or not at all.

The American Beverage Association disputed the study, noting that since the study is epidemiological it cannot show cause and effect.

“Overweight and obesity are caused by an imbalance between calories consumed from all foods and beverages (total diet) and calories burned (physical activity),” the A.B.A. said in a statement. “Therefore, it is misleading to suggest that beverage consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain among this group of children, especially at a time in their lives when they would normally gain weight and grow.”

The U.V.A. researchers also found that young children who regularly drink sugary beverages were more likely to drink less milk and watch more than two hours of television daily than children who had sugary drinks infrequently or not.

“Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is only one practice out of many that contribute to obesity during childhood,” said Mark D. DeBoer, M.D., a researcher who worked on the study.

But Rebecca Scharf, M.D., said drinking sugary beverages is one behavior “that is potentially modifiable – and therefore deserves attention.”