Monday, December 29, 2008

Diet vs. Regular in School Vending Machines Again

Out of sight, out of mind — unless it's the sugar-sweetened sodas that many high school students crave.

Over the past year and a half, middle and high schools have removed regular pop from vending machines and have replaced it with diet pop, water and sometimes juice or sports drinks.

The goal: slow childhood obesity by changing what's available to students during the school day. A 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew — a favorite at many high schools — has more than 18 teaspoons of sugar and/or corn syrup and no nutritional value.

But diet pop isn't selling well in many Omaha-area schools.

At Ralston High, for example, the number of beverage cases needed to fill the vending machines during the 2007-08 year — when the Rams first made the switch — dropped by 48 percent compared with the year before. The machines have Coke Zero, diet sodas, water, flavored waters and juice.

Freshman Desiree King, 14, said she and her friends heard there was "bad stuff" in diet pop: the sweetener aspartame, which some studies have linked to bad reactions and side effects. And the students prefer the taste of regular soft drinks.

In many cases, students are turning to the fridge at home or the convenience store cooler to stock up on regular pop before class. Or they're selecting sports drinks and sugar-saturated coffees, which are no healthier.

That leaves a local doctor, school officials and others calling on parents to be the difference makers.

"Obese children become obese adults. . . . It's a lifelong battle. It's so imperative that kids keep a normal weight," said Dr. Birgit Khandalavala, a family practice doctor and an assistant professor at Creighton University School of Medicine.

Although schools may have good intentions when they put diet pop in their machines, Khandalavala said she's not convinced that drinking it is any better than consuming regular soda.

The doctor said research indicates that switching to diet drinks may not curb weight gain, because the brain behaves as though the sweetener is the real thing. That then starts a chemical response to prepare the body for the sugary version of the drink and makes the drinker crave more sweets.

Howell's BP, a gas station at 52nd Street and the Northwest Radial, is where many Benson students buy nondiet pop.She recommends cutting all pop out of the diet. For an overweight and pre-diabetic child, she said, the change could lead to major health improvements — weight loss and normal blood glucose levels — in as little as one month.

Starting with the 2006-07 school year, the federal government required school districts to develop wellness policies. The policies typically limit food as a reward for students and require nutrition education.

Soon after, the American Beverage Association decided that regular pop would not be sold to schools by 2009. The association also developed guidelines for what types of juices and beverages can be sold in schools.

Those actions prompted many area schools to kick out regular soda last school year. More followed this fall.

Since then, the Papillion-La Vista school district has seen beverage sales plunge. Mountain Dew had been the No. 1 seller.

The sales slide is happening in most Omaha public middle and high schools, too, said spokeswoman Luanne Nelson. Administrators say it could be a mix of the change in what's being offered and the slow economy.

Edward Lopez, vice president of communications for Coca-Cola's region that includes Nebraska, said the dip in pop sales, as well as overall vending machine drinks, is happening at schools nationwide.

On a bright note, he said, students are selecting water from machines in larger numbers, though competition from coffee shops is growing.

Desiree and her friends Raebecca McArtor-Allen and Victoria Vong said the change has been an adjustment.

Some students bring bottles of soda or energy drinks to school, they said, and others have tried to get used to drinking flavored water.

Desiree, who considers herself too thin, said she's trying to gain weight, and the message of drinking only diet soda "if you don't need to be on a diet" bothers her.

Khandalavala said she knows it's a struggle to teach kids about good decision making when it comes to what they drink. She said her own kids have a taste for the sugary drinks.

And when your child is given a new glass of pop at a restaurant before the first one is half-finished, it's hard to send a consistent message.

But, she said, parents can make a huge difference by setting an example, such as choosing water and green tea; cutting out refills; and making sure there is time for physical activity.

Annette Eyman, spokeswoman for Papillion-La Vista schools, agreed that most of the work to change the habits of young people must happen outside of school.

"If we're going to change society, pulling pop out of the vending machines in high schools is not going to do it," Eyman said. "The schools are just one small piece of what we need to do."

School-bought soda is a fraction of what kids actually drink. And recently published findings of a study of Maine high school students suggest that taking regular soda out of school has no effect on how much of it they consume.

Not all schools have seen such a large drop in beverage sales since switching to diet. The decrease is less pronounced in Millard compared with other metro districts, and vending machine drink sales at Omaha Westside High were reported to be holding steady.

Officials in those districts say that's probably because bottled water had been a top seller before the switch.

• Contact the writer: 444-1037,

1 comment:

LovableLoser said...

Two points:
A) It's always about the money. No matter how much they (no matter who "they" are) say it isn't about the money; IT'S ABOUT THE MONEY!

B) They apparently forgot that students can get beverages from other sources. Now I see mostly both extremes in terms of health: water and energy drinks. I'm curious as to how long it takes before they ban outside beverages; that's the only way to "solve" both "problems."