Tucked neatly 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 The Ohio State University, to help reduce the overconsumption of sugary drinks, which are closely linked to Appalachia’s glaring 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,” said Smith. “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 consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages like 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 (CCTS), was inspired to start the “Sodabriety” project when previous research found that among teens in the area, the daily intake of sugared liquids equaled water consumption. Oversized drinks were particularly popular among the teens — many of who later admitted they had no idea the mega serving could add almost 500 calories to their daily intake.
“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,” said Smith, who is also an associate professor of Ohio State’s 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 in a place where sugar laden sweet tea is more popular than water, and soda vending machines are easily accessible — the researchers knew they were in for a challenge. Cindy Oliveri, a project assistant on Smith’s team recalls doing a site visit to prepare for the program, and looking into classroom after classroom only to see sugared drinks sitting on the desks of students and teachers alike.
“We knew it 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,” Oliveri
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