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Would You Walk 5 Miles For a Soda?

Teens are the top consumers of sugary drinks in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a trend that may be a contributor to the skyrocketing obesity rates in adolescents in the past 30 years. But as anyone who’s been around teenagers knows, trying to convince them to make healthier choices can be an uphill battle. However, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health may have found one way to get through to teens: just tell them how far they’d have to walk or run to burn off the calories in the soda they’re about to consume.

“People don’t really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories,” says 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 is needed to burn them off, you can encourage behavior change.”

“If you’re going to give people calorie information, there’s probably a better way to do it.”

Sara N. Bleich, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

For six-week stretches between August 2012 and June 2013, Bleich and her colleagues installed signs in six corner stores in low-income, predominantly black Baltimore neighborhoods. The signs, four in all, presented a key fact about the number of calories in a 20 oz. bottle of soda, sports drink or fruit juice: each bottle contained 250 calories, 16 teaspoons of sugar, would take 50 minutes of running or 5 miles of walking to burn the calories off. After observing over 3,000 drink purchases they came to a pleasantly surprising conclusion: adolescents who saw the informational signs were more likely to leave the store with a healthier or smaller-sized beverage, passsing up the opprotunity to buy a sugary drink. Even better, this healthier behavior persisted for weeks after the signs had come down.

“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 says. “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.”

“Reducing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption by Providing Caloric Information: How Black Adolescents Alter Their Purchases and Are the Effects Persistent” was published online in October 2014 in the American Journal of Public Health. Besides Bleich, contributors also included Colleen L. Barry, PhD, Tiffany L. Gary-Webb, PhD, and Bradley J. Herring, PhD, all from the Bloomberg School of Public Health.