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Calories seen in “Miles” Discourage Youth from Drinking Soda

Update Date: Oct 16, 2014 04:14 PM EDT

Seeing calories in terms of miles can discourage adolescents from drinking a sugary drink, a new study reported. According to a research team from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, people who saw how many miles it would take to burn off one beverage were more likely to purchase a healthier option.

"People don't really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories," explained study leader Sara N. Bleich, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. "If you're going to give people calorie information, there's probably a better way to do it. What our research found is that when you explain calories in an easily understandable way such as how many miles of walking needed to burn them off, you can encourage behavior change."

For this study, the researchers put up signs at six corner stores informing people how many miles they would have to walk to burn off the calories from different types of beverages, which were soda, sports drink, fruit juice. For example, it would take 50 minutes of running or five miles of walking to burn off a drink that has 250 calories and 16 teaspoons of sugar. The signs were installed one at a time in each store.

The team observed 3,098 drink purchases made by adolescents aged 12 to 18. A quarter of them were asked whether or not they saw the signs. 35 percent of the kids saw the signs. 59 percent of them stated that they believed the content on the signs and 40 percent stated that the signs influenced their behavior.

Overall, the signs reduced the number of sugary beverage purchases. Before the signs went up, 98 percent of the purchases consisted of sugary drinks. After the signs went up, the rate fell to 89 percent. In terms of calorie count, the number of calories purchased fell from 203 to 179. After seeing the signs, adolescents were more likely to buy smaller bottles as well.

"This is a very low-cost way to get children old enough to make their own purchases to drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and they appear to be effective even after they are removed," Bleich stated according to the press release. "Black adolescents are one of the groups at highest risk for obesity and one of the largest consumers of sugary beverages. And there is a strong scientific link between consumption of sugary beverages and obesity. Using these easy-to-understand and easy-to-install signs may help promote obesity prevention or weight loss."

The signs were up for six-week intervals between August 2012 and June 2013. The stores were from low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore with predominately black residents. The study, "Reducing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption by Providing Caloric Information: How Black Adolescents Alter Their Purchases and Are the Effects Persistent," was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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