This simple change in school cafeterias could help kids lose weight

Well-behaved children start at home.
A kindergartener holds her mom's hand while going to school. Anne Christine / Getty Images

Are your kids sipping away on sugary sodas, energy drinks and chocolate milk during their lunch break? New U.S. research suggests that a move as simple as installing water jet machines in elementary school cafeterias could be an effective tool to combat childhood obesity.

In 2009, health officials in New York installed water jets – electronically powered jugs that resemble slushie machines and dispense chilled, oxygenated water – into elementary schools across the city. The machines cost about $1,000 and about 40 per cent of the city’s schools received a water jet between 2009 and 2013.

After studying the health of more than one million students, New York City scientists said the move made a small, but noticeable decrease in body weight, body mass index and rates of students who were overweight.

“This study demonstrates that doing something as simple as providing free and readily available water to students may have positive impacts on their overall health, particularly weight management,” New York University professor Dr. Brian Elbel, the study’s senior investigator, said.

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He told U.S. media outlets that the kids seemed “interested” and “excited” in the machines, so they’d swap their sugary drinks for water.

“Our findings suggest that this relatively low-cost intervention is, in fact, working,” he said in a statement.

More than one million students in 1,227 elementary and middle schools were studied for Elbel’s research.

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School officials collected students’ height, weight and fitness levels each year. Scientists used the data to track and compare BMI and overweight status for all the students before and after the water jets were introduced.

Turns out, after just three months, the scientists documented a difference: students who had water machines in their cafeterias saw a reduction in BMI. For boys, it was about 0.025 and about 0.022 for girls compared to their peers who didn’t have access to water with their lunchtime meals.

Access to water was also tied to a 0.9 per cent reduction in the likelihood of being overweight for boys and about a 0.6 per cent reduction in girls. That’s about a four to five pound weight loss for an overweight student, the researchers say.

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The scientists guess that easy access to the interactive machine meant that the kids were reaching for water instead of sweetened beverages like juice and chocolate milk. Keep in mind, NYC public schools stopped the sale of sugary sweetened beverages but kids could still bring these drinks to school.

In his previous work, Elbel found that water consumption increased threefold in just three months after the schools introduced water jets. At the same time, milk purchases dropped by about 12 half-pint cartons per student per year.

Elbel says the findings hold promise as the kids forge a healthy habit of choosing water at mealtimes. Just under 40 per cent of kids in New York City are overweight or obese.

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U.S. health officials have been carving out initiatives to battle a childhood obesity epidemic across the country. They’ve phased out soda from vending machines, replacing them with milk and fruit, for example.

They’ve even partnered with Sesame Street so that the popular Muppet characters will be on stickers and labels on fruit and vegetables.

Academics found that the cartoons helped entice kids to pick apples over cookies and French fries.

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READ MORE: How to get your kids to eat their fruits and vegetables

Read Elbel’s full findings here. They were published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics.