Why Water?

Kids are drinking too many sodas and other sugary drinks.  In California, even with state laws prohibiting most sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) on school campuses, studies indicate that an alarming 62 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 and 41 percent of children ages two to 11 drink at least one soda or sugar-sweetened beverage per day.

These figures concern doctors and dentists alike.  We all know the statistics around childhood obesity: one in three children are overweight or obese and these rates have skyrocketed over the past forty years.  Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2 to 5 years and adolescents aged 12 to 19 years, and more than tripled for children aged 6 to 11 years.  And, experts are increasingly pointing to the role of sugary drinks, like sodas, sports drinks, and sweet teas, as a primary driver of the obesity epidemic.

Sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and other SSBs all have unnecessary added sugars or other sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup.  Unfortunately, these sugary drinks are all too easily available to our children in the places where they live, learn, and play.

With so much concern about poor nutrition and unhealthy eating, encouraging healthy diets is a critical strategy to solving to these problems.  With this in mind, promoting water consumption becomes a key strategy to reverse some of these problems.  Experts are reaching a consensus that water should be a key ingredient in any anti-obesity strategy.  In fact, the Surgeon General recently included a recommendation to promote water in schools in her report on combating childhood obesity.1

Why should we be concerned about kids drinking water?  Water is a vital nutrient and, because it has no calories and is free when it comes from the tap, it is the ideal drink for thirsty kids.

Yet, research shows that too many kids are probably not drinking enough water.2  If kids aren’t drinking water, they’re either drinking unnecessary sugary drinks, like sodas and sports drinks, or nothing. Overconsumption of these sugary drinks can lead to unhealthy weight gain.

Alternatively, poor hydration can be harmful for academic achievement, ability to be physically active, and overall health.3

Research suggests that substituting water for SSBs could result in up to 235 fewer extra calories per day being taken in by children and adolescents.4  In addition to water’s role in maintaining a healthy weight, replacing SSBs with tap water, which is often fluoridated, can help to prevent tooth decay, one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood.

When kids are thirsty or after physical activity, water should be the drink of choice.

In short, there is a growing research base that shows that increasing water consumption is good for a student’s health and well-being and can help improve weight and academic performance.

So, there are a lot of reasons to be pushing water!  For nutrition and activity, academic performance, dental health, and cost (tap water is free, sugary drinks cost money).

Schools are a great place to start on promoting water consumption since kids spend so much of their day in schools and can begin to learn how to incorporate water consumption into their daily routine.

In the fall of 2010, California passed legislation, SB 1413, to require that free, fresh drinking water be made available to students during school meals.  Pending federal legislation would create a similar requirement nationally in schools.

In 1999, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction found that there was an inadequate ratio of water fountains to people on school campuses throughout California yet, before SB 1413, little or nothing had been done to remedy this situation. And, recent data indicates that water is too often unavailable in many schools where kids are eating their meals with over 40 percent of school districts responding to a recent survey reporting no access to free drinking water during school meals.  For more information about the current availability of water in schools, see the section, State of the Tap.

Many of the strategies to promote water consumption in schools can also be translated to child care, afterschool settings, and parks and rec sites where children play and recreate.

While First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let’s Move!" initiative has brought a new round of high-level attention to this serious problem, the persistence and pervasiveness of the epidemic is truly troubling.  It is clear that local action is needed if we’re going to start making a difference.

1.  "The Surgeon General's Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation, 2010".  US Department of Health and Human Services.  http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/obesityvision/obesityvision2010.pdf

2.  Stookey J.  Presentation.  Oakland, CA.  September 14, 2009.

3.  Stookey J.  Forthcoming article.

4.  Wang YC et al.  "Impact of Change in Sweetened Caloric Beverage Consumption on Energy Intake Among Children and Adolescents".  Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.  Vol. 163, No. 4, April 2009.