Vitality

Teen Soda Drinkers Make Healthier Choices When They Know How Many Miles To Run To Burn It Off

Teens Make Smarter Choices With More Calorie Information
When teens are informed about calorie and exercise breakdown, they make healthier choices. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Would you pause before biting into that chocolate frosted cupcake if you knew you’d have to attend an intense 30-minute spin class just to burn it off? Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health gave teens a new perspective on what their calories actually mean. Their findings appear in the American Journal of Public Health.

"People don't really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories," the study’s lead author Dr. Sara N. Bleich, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, said in a press release. "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 [is] needed to burn them off, you can encourage behavior change."

What does a 600-calorie burger mean to someone when they don’t understand how many calories turn into a pound of fat, or how much exercise they’d need to burn just the fluffy bun off before it turned into a soft pouch below the belly button? Wendy’s Big Bacon Classic burger weighs in at 580 calories. You’d need to run for 52 minutes at a 10-minute-mile pace in order to burn it off, and a Burger King Double Whopper will lock you onto the treadmill for an hour and 20 minutes. Knowing that every can of Coca-Cola Coke Classic will earn you 12 minutes may make its 140 calories appear differently to teenagers, who guzzle them regularly, according to Critical Bench.

Last year, Gallup researchers found 32 percent of adults drink soda on a regular basis, and the group that’s most likely to is between the ages of 18 to 29. With 50 percent of young adults drinking soda, it's ideal to cut off the cravings and educate the teenage population before they grow into regular soda drinkers. Soda's roots date back to the late 1700s, when it was appropriately consumed as an infrequent treat instead of an everyday beverage. The day soda cans began dispensing from vending machines in 1965 was the beginning of accessibility and instant sugar-rushed gratification.

Soda vending machines welcomes teens’ sweet tooths in the hallways of their schools, at rec halls, and arcade centers. Teens have been targeted by big soda companies for decades — what sensible businessman wouldn’t prey on them? By targeting the pre-adult demographic, soda companies are grooming and training young taste buds for the sweet and bubbly amber liquid.

With a growing obesity population and childhood weight-gaining epidemic, researchers sought out-of-the-box solutions to teach teens the weight of a calorie. Bleich’s team installed signs in six corner stores of a low-income Baltimore area. Out of all the drinks sold in the stores, 98 percent were sugary beverages. Each sign listed each bottle’s 250 calories, 16 teaspoons of sugar, and calculated it would take 50 minutes of running or five miles of walking to burn the calories off. After teens between the ages of 12 to 18 saw the signs, sugary drink sales dropped by 10 percent, and the sizes of drinks dropped by 54 percent. Water purchases increased from one to four percent.

Of the 3,098 primarily black adolescents the researchers observed, 40 percent said they plan on changing their behavior after seeing the signs, and 59 percent said they believed the signs with calorie and exercise breakdown. This only adds to the growing body of research that proves simply showing the amounts of calories on products and menus isn’t enough to sway them. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is overhauling their nutritional labels to make them more understandable for the general population, and hopefully these calorie-to-exercise breakdowns will be implemented to make teens think twice before they drink another dose of liquid candy.

"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 said. "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."

Source: Bleich SN, Barry CL, Gary-Webb TL, and Herring BJ. Reducing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption by Providing Caloric Information: How Black Adolescents Alter Their Purchases and Are the Effects Persistent. American Journal of Public Health. 2014. 

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