by Marion Nestle
Apr 4 2009

Prevent childhood obesity: drink water?

I can hardly believe it but just having drinking fountains in schools (and no sugary drinks) seems to be enough to reduce the risk of obesity in kids by 31%.  This astonishing result is reported in the latest issue of Pediatrics. Investigators arranged to have drinking fountains installed in about half of 32 elementary schools in “socially deprived” areas of Germany.  They also prepared lesson plans encouraging water consumption.  Kids in the intervention schools drank more water and reported consuming less juice.

Could we try this here?  The barriers are formidible.  First, the water fountain problem.  Water fountains must (a) be present, (b) be usable, (c) be clean and sanitary, and (d) produce water that is free of harmful chemicals and bacteria.  All of these are problematic.  I once tried to find out whether the water in school drinking fountains in New York City had been tested and was known to be safe to drink.  I had to file a FOIA (freedom of information act) request to get testing data.  This came from only a few schools and from water going into the fountains, not coming out of them.

And then there is the soda problem.  Schools in Germany do not have vending machines all over the place and kids do not have access to sodas, juice drinks, and other such things all day long.  Ours do.

But doesn’t this study suggest that if we got rid of vending machines and junk foods in schools – and made sure water fountains worked, were clean, and distributed clean water – that we could make a little progress on preventing childhood obesity?  Worth a try, no?

  • Fascinating study, although I think common sense would have come to the same conclusion.

    Have US schools really taken out water fountains? If so, why and who was involved in making such decisions? Where soda companies hanging around influencing such decisions?

    Someone should develop a water fountain capable of delivering good, cool, clean water in schools, and use corporate sponsorships to pay for them. Can you imagine Coke-Cola Water Fountains serving free water to students?

    Seems to me that it would be a win-win-win for schools, students and the companies that will lose revenues when schools continue pulling out sugary drinks, not that I really care about lost revenue when it comes to children’s health.

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  • The PTA is pushing to remove vending machines in schools, but the loss of funds is an issue for public schools. It is a shame we have to resort to junk food to help fund our children’s education. As a parent of a 7 yr old and a 4 yr old, I want the vending machines out of the schools – all of them. I am also a PTA volunteer and I can tell you that raising money from sources other than parents is very difficult. Regardless of how much we teach the kids in school about healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, it is not going to make much of a difference if at home those values are not the same. I think health education needs to include the parents. Here is the article on the PTA request to have junk food removed from schools

  • Such a simple thing, it’s silly not to do this! Too bad about politics and funding through soda machines. What about machines that only sell water bottles?

  • There are drinking fountains in my kids’ school, even in the cafeteria. The problem I have is the teachers allowing more access and encouraging the children to drink water. When the children get a chance to get a drink, they can only drink for 5 seconds. At a water fountain, they don’t get much water in that short amount of time.

    My children are often dehydrated as a result. I had to send a note at one time for the teacher to especially encourage my daughter to drink while her body was fighting off a minor infection. She has been sent to the school nurse for split lips and given chapstick for what are obvious signs of dehydration.

    The drinking fountains are there, they just need to be used better!

  • Jon

    It should be obvious. Liquid calories play a special role in obesity because our brain doesn’t treat liquids the same as solids. (There’s limited evidence milk might be an exception.) Soft drinks also work to trick your taste buds into thinking water is undrinkable. On top of that, the influx of rapidly absorbed carbs leads to a sugar crash, requiring…more carbs (and therefore more calories). So soft drinks are addictive through multiple mechanisms.

    As for taking out water fountains, I haven’t heard of that, but I do know that many schools claim water fountains are a distraction from the educational process. These same schools tend to have a lot of vending machines because some of these contracts reward the school in proportion to sales, while charging the school for machines. Have a problem with it? This is what happens when you vote down school levies.

  • Sheila

    I agree that more water and less sugary soda is a great idea. My concern about water fountains, however, is the germ issue. I personally view drinking from a public water fountain as similar to drinking from the same cup as the general public. I will not drink from a public water fountain. I see too many people put their lips or tongue on the fountain, they get their face right down near the water spigot and leave all kinds of saliva and respiratory germs. I don’t know if the last person to drink from the fountain maybe had strep throat infection. I have seen people spit in the fountains as they pass, and I have even seen men urinate on the fountains.
    My preferred way to consume water if not directly from my home faucet is to bring my own re-usable container full of water, and I wash the container at home every evening. I think children could bring their own water just as we send them to school with a packed lunch if they don’t like the cafeteria food.

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  • I think that it is a great idea to get children to drink more water. Whatever we need to do to address childhood obesity is exactly what we need to do. I too am a little cautious about drinking from public water fountains because of the germ issue. It would be good if there were better water fountains. That’s one area where it doesn’t seem like the technology has kept up with other advances. Just thinking out loud……

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  • The water fountain in most American communities are pumping out Fluoridated water. Fluoride has been linked to lower IQ in 23 studies from around the world.
    It is a practice that is opposed by over 2200+ health professionals including 14 Nobel laureates.
    See short video interview with Christopher Bryson, Author of the Fluoride Deception:
    50 Reasons to Oppose Fluoridation:

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  • Mary G. Materu

    Marion, I love everything of what you write. I am a nutritionist from Tanzania and a cancer survivor. I read two of your books (Food Politics and Safe food). This article is again those great, simple things you always suggest to improve lives of people. What you are calling “juice drinks” which many people and indeed in my country won’t even differentiate them from “100% juice”, I always call them “colored drinks”, They should be completely banned, not only to children but a complete ban.
    I love your blog, very educative.