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Soft Drinks Require a Hard Look

A recent summary of research by a school nurse into obesity in American adolescents led to a not too surprising conclusion: Soft drinks are accounting for a significant protion of the calorie intake in an average teen's day.

I say not surprising because soft drink companies have to be one of the most rampant advertisers in our marketplace. The ongoing war between the two "Big Ones" alone has saturated our media environments with images of athletes, blonde bombshells, and every other demographic imaginable guzzling down frost encrusted cans and bottles of the sugary beverages.

But the feature article by Susan Harrington, RN in the February 2008 edition of The Journal of School Nursing offers a chilling view of what having sodas become an integral part of a teen's diet has done. To begin, one research paper she quotes estimates that one soft drink per day will produce a 110-pound increase in body mass over a period of ten years.

Other research offers interesting insight as to why, in this world of reduced fat foods, adolescent obesity is still on the rise? Two studies looked at groups of teens that were on fat controlled diets versus sugar-controlled diets. It turns out those who were able to eat whenever they wanted, but had to choose from low sugar (or, in technical terms, low-glycemic index or GI) foods lost weight while those who were on fat controlled diets actually saw an increase in insulin resistance -- meaning sugar was a greater contributor to maintaining obesity than was fat consumption. The study also noted that teens tend to adhere better to a diet that allows them to eat when they want.

Additional surveys discovered that high sugar drinks were replacing young people's tendency to choose milk, resulting in a reduction of calcium and zinc in their diets. As well, drinks with sugar tend to stimulate additional hunger responses, resulting in the consumption of additional food. Conversely, drinks like milk tend to contribute to the feeling of being full and satisfied after a meal.

Harrington notes that in 2001 over 60% of U.S. middle and high schools reported having soft drink vending machines. In 2002, an estimated 240 U.S. school districts had entered into exclusive "pouring rights" -- contracts with soft drink companies. These agreements kick back cash and incentives to schools in return for allowing the soda merchants to sell drinks in hallways and cafeterias, along with advertising on school properties. Some of these contracts even result in revenue being directly linked to the amount of drinks sold in the school.

At that time, 76% of principals surveyed claimed parents were not concerned with (quoting the survey question) "commercial companies going into schools and seducing their children into buying specific products for the economic improvement of the schools."

Lest you think schools are the sole source of children finding super sweet drinks, it turns out most of the consumption (according to one of the quoted studies) happens at home. In an attempt to see what would happen with intervention, in 2006 researchers began delivering alternative low caloric beverage choices to the homes of a portion of 103 obese adolescents. Those who were in the group receiving the alternative drinks saw a "significant beneficial effect on body weight."

The good news is the studies offer methods parents and teachers can employ to combat the obesity trend. Educating young people on good food choices is somewhat effective, although teens are often resistant to adults providing dietary directions. In my own work, I have discovered teens often possess a cynical view of advertising, and this perspective can be leveraged to help them come to their own conclusions about the value of the products they are being sold, and how they are affecting their bodies.  Harrington also makes a point of showing how school nurses can play a pivotal role in this process.

In their defense, the beverage industries are also stepping up to help, and have adopted School Beverage Guidelines that target the reduction of calories in drinks sold in schools at all levels. The American Beverage Association claims changes are already taking place, with declines in deliveries of carbonated sugar drinks to schools and increases in water, diet drinks and pure juice drinks.

It's a good start, but more needs to be done. Parents, the next time a frosty covered soda appears on your television screen, take the opportunity to discuss options for other drinks and put the soda back into the "occasional treat" category where it belongs.

Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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