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Sugar withdrawal

Boston high school students have fewer sweetened drinks

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / August 10, 2011

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The seven-year-old policy restricting the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in Boston Public Schools appears to be paying off: Consumption dropped among high school students from 1.7 servings a day on average in 2004 to 1.4 servings a day in 2006, according to a new study by Harvard researchers.

They calculated that this 3.8 ounce decline in sugary beverages added up to a drop in calorie consumption of about 45 calories per day. While the researchers did not track changes in the students’ body mass index, this type of calorie deficit could help with obesity prevention efforts, study leader Angie Cradock, a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview.

A 45-calorie reduction “could eliminate 25 percent to 40 percent of the total excess calories, or energy gap, that is attributed to increasing average body weight among US children,’’ Cradock and her colleagues wrote in the study, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The results were compiled from two surveys taken in 2004 and 2006 of more than 1,000 Boston high school students that asked about consumption of regular soda, fruit punch, lemonade, and other sweetened fruit drinks during the previous week.

The researchers did not ask about other calorie-laden beverages like fruit juice and milk, which were still allowed in public schools.

But they found that the percentage of students reporting no consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages during the week before the survey more than doubled, from 4.5 percent in 2004 to 9.8 percent in 2006.

The drop in Boston compares with very little change in the consumption of sugary beverages among teenagers nationally.

According to a 2003-2004 federal government survey, teenagers downed 1.74 servings of sugar-sweetened drinks every day, which declined to 1.66 servings in 2005-2006 surveys, a change so slight the Harvard researchers found it to be statistically insignificant.

In Boston, a policy restricting the sale of soda, sports drinks, and other sugary beverages in vending machines, cafeterias, or anywhere on school grounds was approved by the Boston School Committee in June 2004 and initiated in public schools that fall.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, at the direction of state legislators who had advance access to the current study data, this year proposed instituting a similar policy in all the state’s public schools that would take effect in the 2012-2013 school year. It would ban not only sugary beverages but french fries and other high-calorie, fat-laden snacks from vending machines and a la carte cafeteria lines.

Steven Gortmaker of Harvard, a study coauthor, said Boston health officials also had access to the data, which he said helped persuade Mayor Thomas M. Menino to announce a ban in April on the sale of sugary beverages at all city-owned facilities.

“This study shows that a very simple policy change can have a big impact on student behavior,’’ said Cradock. “It also shows that when students couldn’t get these unhealthy beverages in school, they didn’t necessarily buy them elsewhere.’’

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com.