Preschoolers who consume sugary drinks are more likely to gain extra weight and run the risk of being obese according to new research conducted at the University of Virginia. Their message – be vigilant about kids’ sugary drink consumption habits. That’s wise advice. But we need to go a step further. It’s not just the kids’ habits that need changing.
Kids between 4 and 5 years old who drank at least one sugary drink a day also tended to watch more than two hours of television a day. And the study found that a greater portion of the kids drinking sugary drinks had a mother who was overweight or obese.
We need to make the right choice the easy choice for everyone – kids and adults alike. The CDC agrees that education alone isn’t the best way to do it. Measures that change the environment are more effective. This means the default choice should be one that people don’t really have to think about.
It means higher prices on sugary drinks, such as a tax on sugar-added drinks that could also be used to fund anti-obesity initiatives. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption accounts for one-fifth of the weight gained by American over the last 30 years.
It means lower prices on and greater availability of healthy foods.
It means increasing physical education and activity in schools where kids spend a great portion of their day.
It means making areas to play and exercise more readily available and free, like opening school buildings and grounds to the community after school hours for recreational purposes.
Will these things make a difference? They already are in some communities. Just last month we heard that 19 states saw a small decrease in childhood obesity rates among preschool children in low income families. Opening up playgrounds, creating more bike lanes, making healthy food more affordable and available are all part of the mix.
Supposedly Vermont is one of the healthiest states in the nation. So why should we care? Because being the best of the worst isn’t good enough. If Vermont’s rate of obesity continues on its current path, more than 47 percent of Vermonters could be obese by 2030 and obesity-related health care costs in Vermont could climb by 20.3 percent.
We need to act. Now.
The American Heart Association is trying to reverse the obesity trend. It’s a leader in Live Healthy Vermont and Eat Well Play More Vermont, two newly-formed coalitions trying to get Vermonters to eat better and move more through policy change. But success depends on the support of the legislature, Governor and other state leaders.
Right now, our kids will likely live five years less than their parents. Finding a way to give those five years back should be a priority for all of us.
Rachel Johnson of Colchester is the Chair of the American Heart Association’s National Nutrition Committee and was the first author on the AHA’s scientific statement on added sugars and cardiovascular disease. She is a Robert L. Bickford Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont.