How Far Would You Run For That Soda?

Calorie and exercise information helps teens decline sugary drinks

December 18, 2011 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) You're standing in front of a display of sodas at the convenience store. There's a sign in front of the sodas, telling you how far you'd have to run to burn it off.

Do you still want it?

In a low income area with a large African-American population, many teens answered no. The idea of doing 50 minutes of running to work off the calories from the drink was enough to dissuade them.

A study found that signs posted with information about calories and the physical activity equivalent of the calorie intake reduced the likelihood of teenagers buying sodas or sugar-sweetened fruit drinks by nearly half.

"Sugar drinks are not healthy, stop buying them."

The research was led by Dr. Sara Bleich of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. There have been studies that showed that displaying nutrition information influenced consumers' choices, but there hasn't been definitive evidence of what works to encourage healthier choices.

That's why Dr. Bleich designed her study to test how to influence adolescents' drink choices. She picked out four convenience stores located near junior and high schools in low-income areas of Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins. The targets of the study were teenagers, who would likely be drawn to these locations.

Signs were posted on the coolers in each store, and a grad student was posted to write down the teen's choices after they left the store. The signs had one piece of following information:

1. Absolute calorie count (how many total calories are in the drink)
2. Calorie count in terms of percentage of total recommended daily intake (“This drink has 10% of your daily calories”)
3. Physical activity equivalent (letting kids know how much running it takes to burn off the drink)

They watched 1,600 beverage sales for black adolescents, including 400 during a period where no information was posted.

The researchers found that providing any type of caloric information on the beverage cooler reduced the number of sugar sweetened beverages sold. But what had the greatest effect was the information about how much physical activity it would take to burn off the calories from the drink. Drink sales of water and diet sodas went up in stores during this period.

Dr. Bleich said that this study showed that black teens will use information provided in order to make healthier choices, especially when it comes to buying drinks at the corner store. She added that most consumers do not realize how many calories are in a can, and that they quickly add up.

Sugary drinks like soda have been blamed in part for America's obesity epidemic. Obesity is strongly linked to multiple health problems, including diabetes, overactive bladder, and heart conditions.

The research was published in the American Journal of Public Health in December 2011.