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Teen Obesity and Sugary Drinks

Sugary drinks have been linked to youth obesity, and teens are drinking more of them. Are school vending machines part of the problem?

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Anna M. Adachi-Mejia

Sugary drinks have been linked to youth obesity, and teens are drinking more of them. Since they spend most of their time in school, the food and drinks offered there can really influence their food choices. School lunch menus follow federal regulations that limit unhealthy foods, but school vending machines have not been consistently regulated and often offer unlimited access to sugar sweetened beverages. NCCC researchers recently studied high school vending machines to see what teens are drinking: Could we help them make healthier choices?

Sugary drink consumption is increasing, and has been linked to youth obesity

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends drinking water instead of sugary drinks, and many schools have eliminated or limited the amount of soda they offer. But many adults may not realize that sport drinks, fruit drinks, nondiet iced teas, lemonade, and even chocolate milk are all sugar sweetened.

Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine and The Dartmouth Institute, and a member of the Cancer Control Research Program at NCCC, says that we should be paying attention to what kinds of beverages kids are drinking. "Cancer prevention starts with a healthy diet and with adequate physical activity. These behaviors can also prevent obesity, which is a risk factor for many different types of cancers."

Access to vending machines varies for VT and NH teens depending on size of the town

Adachi-Mejia led a study, recently published in Public Health, that examined high school beverage vending machine content in 26 Vermont and New Hampshire high schools. The most common beverages were flavored water (34.8%), sugar-sweetened beverages (23.6%), and plain water (21.8%). Compared to vending machines in urban schools, town high schools had more machine-front advertising and offered up to twice as many sugar-sweetened beverages. "This variation suggests an opportunity for us to learn how some schools were able to offer healthier choices. They could serve as role models for other schools," she said.

Access to healthy drinks can help with teen obesity

"I hope that this research starts the conversation about accessing healthy beverages in school. Parents and school staff can think of sugar-sweetened beverages as 'rarely' drinks. Everyday drinks include water and plain milk," she said. "Finding so much bottled water in the vending machines makes me wonder, do kids still have access to free, potable water in the schools? In terms of next steps, we should ask, when was the last time the water fountains were cleaned? Are they accessible? And is the water palatable?" She notes that locally, some partners are already making the effort. "I have been impressed with the efforts of the Upper Valley Healthy Eating Active Living Initiative. They have partnered with schools to address these exact issues," she said. "Some schools have already upgraded their water fountains – bravo to them!"

July 29, 2013