Soft drinks and other sugary beverages are often blamed for the big rise in childhood obesity, yet it's surprisingly easy for kids to buy sugar-sweetened drinks at school. That's true even for second-graders; almost half of elementary school students can buy drinks like sodas, sports drinks, and high-fat milk, all of which the Institute of Medicine says contribute to the obesity epidemic.
The fact that elementary schools are more and more likely to have vending machines or a store where kids can buy unhealthy drinks is part of the problem; 14 percent of public elementary school students and 38 percent of private elementary school students can buy sugar-sweetened beverages at school, according to a new study published online in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. And the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that schools offer only unflavored 1-percent or nonfat milk because even milk can be unhealthy if it's loaded with sugar. Chocolate and other flavored milks are recommended only if they are nonfat.
Parents who don't want their kids tanking up on Dr. Pepper or chocolate-flavored whole milk during the school day should first find out their schools' policies on drinks, says Lindsey Turner, a clinical health psychologist and senior research specialist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who led the study. Some schools don't allow any sugared drinks to be sold, while others are much more permissive. "I have two kids in elementary school, so it's certainly a subject near and dear to my own heart," Turner says. Once you know what drinks your children have access to at school, Turner recommends these options:
Serve healthy drinks at home. "Children who are not served chocolate milk at home will potentially not choose it at school," Turner says. Drinking skim or 1-percent milk at home gets children used to the idea that that's what milk really tastes like.
Talk to your kids about healthy choices. For instance, many kids think sports drinks are healthy, when in fact they're nothing more than flavored sugar water. Juice should say "100 percent juice"; a "juice drink" is code for "almost no actual juice."
If your child has access to sugary or high-fat drinks at school, talk to the principal about making changes, or join a parent advisory council. All schools have policies on cafeteria food, vending, and store sales. If parents push hard enough, the menus will change, Turner says.
Turner tracked school beverage choices for three consecutive school years starting in 2006 and was surprised that the number of schools offering sugary drinks didn't decline at all. At the same time, the number of schools where children could buy drinks from vending machines, stores, and snack bars increased from 49 percent in the 2006 school year to 61 percent in the 2008 school year. Access to higher-fat milk also increased, from 37 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2008, with 2-percent and whole milk being offered more often in à la carte cafeteria lines.
It's hard to imagine that a second grader would be willing to pay attention to fat percentages in milk as he shuffles down the cafeteria line; his focus is much more likely to be on whether it's pizza day. Far better would be to have plenty of choices, all healthy. Some schools are experimenting with marketing mini-carrots and other healthy foods like junk food, but nutrition experts agree that the best tactic is to get the junk food—and drinks— out of schools, so the healthy food won't have unfair competition.