Teens Switch From Sugary Drinks With Peer Intervention

Tucked at the edge of rolling Appalachian foothills, the parking lot of a local high school is a meadow of flickering green ribbons tied to car antennas, reminding students about the dangers of drinking—drinking sugar-filled beverages, that is.

The ribbons are part of a program developed by local teens and Laureen Smith, RN, PhD, a researcher from Ohio State University, to help reduce the overconsumption of sugary drinks, which is closely linked to Appalachia’s health disparities.

“Teens that grow up in this region are ultimately more likely to die from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease than any other place in the nation, and obesity is the common risk factor for all of those illnesses,” Smith says. “A child’s odds of becoming obese increases almost two times with each additional daily serving of a sugar-sweetened drink, and Appalachian kids drink more of these types of beverages than kids in other parts of the country.”

Dubbed “Sodabriety,” the teen-led program Smith helped create is trying to reverse that trend. The 30-day project asked groups of teens from two southern Ohio high schools to develop and then lead educational campaigns designed to convince their peers to reduce their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and tea and to drink more unsweetened beverages. By the end of the program, not only did some teens completely give up sugared drinks, but water consumption nearly doubled.

Smith, who was supported by funding from Ohio State’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science, was inspired to start the project when previous research found that area teens’ daily intake of sugared liquids equaled water consumption. Oversized drinks were particularly popular among the teens, many of whom didn’t know this serving contained almost 500 kcal.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of sugar in the American diet. For some teens, they account for almost one-third of daily caloric intake, and that amount is even higher among Appalachian adolescents,” says Smith, who also is an associate professor in the College of Nursing. “If we can help teens reduce sugared-beverage intake now, we might be able to help them avoid obesity and other diseases later in life.”

But the researchers were in for a challenge. “We knew there would be cultural and social obstacles to getting people to give up the sugar. Teens don’t want to hear an adult tell them what’s good for them,” says Cindy Oliveri, a project assistant on Smith’s team. “That attitude completely changes when you get kids to talk to other kids. It’s an example of where peer pressure can have a positive impact.”

Groups of teens representing a range of grades and interests brainstormed various ways to educate peers about sugared drinks, ranging from ribboning students’ cars and including daily “sugar facts” during morning announcements to performing soda-themed rap songs at student events and giving away free water bottles emblazoned with a “What’s in your cup?” slogan. The students also encouraged their classmates to choose water or diet versions of sugared drinks.

At the start of the challenge, the average number of daily sugared drinks dropped from 2.3 servings to 1.3, and the number of days students reported having a sugary drink dropped from four days per week to two days. Water consumption increased nearly 30% from baseline.

Smith collected data at the end of the 30-day program and then followed up a month after the challenge ended. “We found that the changes in sugared drink and water consumption remained relatively stable without any intervention from the program’s teacher coordinators or the research group. The kids were doing it on their own,” she says.

Smith says that the model of using students to design and implement the education campaign has implications for any community looking to help kids adopt better health behaviors. She also notes that on-site vending machines with high-sugar drinks offer particular challenges, not only because they’re easily accessible, but because they’re often a source of revenue for the schools. “We’re not suggesting that schools need to get rid of their vending machines and all sugared beverages,” she says. “By offering a healthier range of options that include water, plus educating kids on what’s healthy, we think it can be a win-win for everyone.”

Source: Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science