Researchers Discover a Crazy-Simple Way for Kids to Fight Obesity, and It's Not About Eating Less

Personal Health

Children in America are steadily getting more and more obese. The numbers are staggering. In 1980, 7 percent of American children aged 6-11 years were obese. By 2012, that figure more than doubled, to 18 percent. During the same period, adolescent obesity rose from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent.

Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, who has set his sights on tackling America’s obesity epidemic, has singled out the problem of childhood obesity in particular. Last October, he welcomed two dozen children from the I’m A Star Foundation to the nation’s capital to present nearly a year’s worth of research on the topic and ask their suggestions to combat it.

In his speech to Murthy, Aaron Johnson, Jr., 13, a seventh-grade student at James Weldon Johnson Middle School in Jacksonville, Florida, said the main hurdle to overcoming childhood obesity was the fact that kids aren't involved in the solutions.

“Our concern is that the vast majority of the ‘call to actions’ and strategic plans for childhood obesity are written by adults, shared by adults, discussed by adults, and the information never gets out to the people most impacted: the children,” Aaron said.

One of the main battlefronts in the war against childhood obesity are the nation’s schools. After all, kids are in school for around eight hours every weekday in a controlled sitution.

“Schools can create environments supportive of students’ efforts to eat healthy and be active by implementing policies and practices that support healthy eating and regular physical activity,” notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has provided a set of guidelines for schools to follow.

The CDC reminds schools in its guidelines that access to water fountains is required by law. Water fountains are "a healthy alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages and can help increase students’ overall water consumption. … As a result of participation in a K–12 health education curriculum that includes nutrition, students should have the knowledge and skills to … [d]rink plenty of water.

It may seem odd to say that kids need the “skills” to drink water, but a central part of the problem is that kids aren’t drinking enough of it, instead gulping sugary beverages like soda and sports drinks, which contribute to weight gain and an unhealthy lifestyle, not to mention tooth decay. As I noted in an earlier article about how beverage companies use marketing to target the poor, sugary beverages make up the third highest source of calories for kids and teens.

New research proves that water may be the key to solving the childhood obesity crisis. A five-year study conducted by researchers at New York University and Syracuse University, and published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics, has concluded that making water more available in public schools through self-serve water dispensers in cafeterias resulted in “statistically significant” declines in students’ weight.

Over the course of the study period, about 40 percent of New York City’s schools received a water jet as part of a program designed by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Department of Education. The water jets—large, clear, electronically powered jugs with a push lever to dispense water—each cost around $1,000.

The researchers analyzed more than one million students in over 1,200 elementary and middle schools across New York City, and compared students in schools with and without the water jets. Kids at schools that had water jets for at least three months experienced a reduction in standardized body mass index—.025 for boys and .022 for girls—compared to kids at schools without water jets. The adoption of water jets was associated with a .9 percentage point reduction in boys' likelihood of being overweight, while girls showed a .6 percentage point reduction.

“This study demonstrates that doing something as simple as providing free and readily available water to students may have positive impacts on their overall health, particularly weight management,” said the study’s senior investigator Brian Elbel, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone and NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “Our findings suggest that this relatively low-cost intervention is, in fact, working.”

“We are in a place right now where we are trying to find anything to help with childhood obesity,” Elbel told the New York Post. “It’s great that a straightforward, fairly low-cost intervention had an effect on kids’ BMI, and I think it makes us want to look a lot closer at simple policies to improve water availability.”

Drinking water can help simply by being a substitute for sugary beverages and other caloric drinks, like milk and chocolate milk, which kids often drink.

“Decreasing the amount of caloric beverages consumed and simultaneously increasing water consumption is important to promote children’s health and decrease the prevalence of childhood obesity,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of NYU’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. “Schools are a natural setting for such interventions.”

But that's not the only way increased water intake can help. As Brooke Alpert, a registered dietician and founder of B Nutritious, a Manhattan-based nutrition counseling firm, says, “Water consumption is directly correlated with weight loss."

Scientific research supports that idea. According to a 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Dietetic Association, dieting obese adults who drank two cups of water before breakfast lost five more pounds than dieters who didn’t increase their water intake.

There may be a physiological response to increased water intake. Some research suggests that the body may produce more heat in response to water consumption, thereby increasing metabolic rates, which in turn burns off more calories.

Whatever the reason, it appears that drinking more water can help keep the pounds off, and for America’s kids, that’s great news.

There are also important anti-obesity initiatives underway, like a bill in Baltimore that seeks to put warning labels wherever sugary drinks are sold. But the simple prescription to drink more water is one initiative that should make seventh-grader Aaron Johnson—who wants kids to participate in their own battle against obesity—particularly happy. After all, for the vast majority of kids out there, taking a drink from a water fountain is a piece of (calorie-free) cake.

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