Sometimes the simplest efforts to improve public health are the most effective. Case in point: A recent study linking increased access to drinking water to healthier weights in public schools.
Published in JAMA Pediatrics, this study analyzed the effect of water dispensers on student weight in New York elementary and middle schools. Since 2001, New York has implemented many policies to help combat childhood obesity in public schools. Efforts have included increasing availability of fruits and vegetables, removing soda from vending machines, and replacing whole milk with low-fat milk. In 2009, New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Department of Education launched an intervention to increase access to drinking water in school cafeterias.
Through this intervention, New York public schools received water jets, which help chill and oxygenate water to keep it tasting fresh. Water jet machines cost roughly $1,000 to install and help provide children with a calorie-free beverage during lunchtime. By making water more available, experts hoped children would choose water over higher-calorie beverages like sodas and juices, thus promoting a healthier weight.
To test this theory, experts sampled student weight in 1,227 New York public elementary and middle schools, which together encompassed more than 1 million students. During the 2008–2009 and 2012–2013 academic years, 40% of schools received water jets and 60% did not.
After tracking the students’ weight before and after water jet installations, researchers found that water jets helped decrease their overall body mass index or BMI (measure of height and weight). The proportion of overweight students also decreased by nearly 1%. Interestingly, schools with water jets saw a 12% decrease in the number of milk pints purchased by students each year.
Experts are encouraged by the findings, which confirm the benefits of increased water access in schools. Not only may increasing water consumption reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, it helps promote a healthy weight in children. Of course, further research is needed to better understand the impact of water availability in schools. But as experts hope, making water more available in schools may serve as a powerful tool for combatting childhood obesity.