A major source of sugar in the American diet is sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, fruit punch, energy drinks, sweetened iced teas, and sports drinks. Children’s consumption of soft drinks is rising. Studies have found that children are starting to consume them in infancy. By adolescence, 32% of girls and 52% of boys drink 24 ounces (780 milliliters) or more of soft drinks each day.
The steady climb in children’s intake of sugar-sweetened beverages is troubling for many reasons. As children’s soft drink consumption has increased, their milk consumption has decreased. That is a worrisome trend, given that adolescence is a time of rapid bone development and increased calcium needs. Teenagers who do not maximize bone development during these crucial years (by getting enough calcium and regular physical activity) may increase their risk of osteoporosis in late adulthood.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are said to be filled with empty calories because they basically contain just sugar and water, and they provide many calories but few of the nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and grow strong. A growing body of research strongly suggests that sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with excess weight gain in children and adults. One study found that middle school students who increased their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages gained excess weight; for each additional 12-ounce (375-milliliter) serving of sugar-sweetened beverage consumed per day, the odds of becoming obese increased by 60%. Reducing or avoiding empty calories from sugar-sweetened beverages may help with weight control: Another study found that when overweight teenagers reduced their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by replacing those beverages with calorie-free ones, they lost about 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) per month. Other research connects the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages with a risk for type 2 diabetes.
A healthy eating plan includes few if any beverages with added sugar. The Harvard Prevention Research Center recommends that children consume no more than 2 8-ounce glasses of sugar-sweetened beverages per week. This includes soft drinks, fruit punches, sweetened ice teas, sports drinks,* and energy drinks. Children should also avoid consuming artificially-sweetened beverages, since the long-term effects of artificial sweetener consumption are unknown and since artificial sweeteners may encourage a taste for sweetness. Children should be encouraged to select healthier beverages such as water for quenching thirst or low-fat and skim milk for calcium; calcium-fortified soy drinks** and calcium-fortified 100% orange juice are also good sources of calcium. Consumption of 100% fruit juice should be limited to no more than 8 ounces (250 milliliters) per day. Juice contains vitamins and minerals, but it naturally contains a large amount of fruit sugar (fructose) and lacks the fiber found in fresh whole fruit. To make it easier to stay within the 8-ounce fruit juice limit, dilute a small amount of 100% fruit juice (4 ounces) with sparkling water.
- Students will measure the amount of sugar consumed from soft drinks and evaluate the results.
- Students will demonstrate how the body responds to sugary drinks.
- Students will learn to replace soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages with healthy drinks.
- Sugar (5-pound bag, or 2 kilograms)
- Measuring teaspoons
- Small paper cups or clear plastic cups
- Worksheet 1, Sugar Count
EVALUATE SUGAR INTAKE
1. Introduce the lesson by asking students to say what they think about the word sugar. Ask them to list the foods and drinks that they consume that contain sugar. What is the most common food or beverage listed?
2. Explain that soft drinks represent a major source of sugar intake in the diets of older children and teenagers. Distribute worksheet 1 (Sugar Count) to students and instruct them to complete the Soft Drink Count table by recording the number of 12-ounce (375-milliliter) cans and 20-ounce (600-milliliter) bottles of soft drink they consumed the previous day. Then have the students calculate the total number of teaspoons of sugar consumed from the soft drinks.
3. Have students evaluate their sugar intake (part II of worksheet 1). Distribute the paper cups. Instruct the students to measure out a teaspoon of sugar for each teaspoon of sugar they consumed from soft drinks the previous day and to pour the sugar into their cups to visualize the amount of sugar consumed.
Alternatively, to minimize the amount of sugar used for this activity, choose a few students to measure out their sugar intake and demonstrate it to the class.
Discuss the students’ observations—were they surprised at the amount of sugar they consumed?
a. A child who consumes just 1 can of soft drink per day (10 teaspoons of sugar) may consume 70 teaspoons of sugar over 1 week, which translates to about 3 pounds (1 kilogram) of sugar each month (using the simple calculation of 4 weeks in a month) and 36 pounds (16 kilograms) of sugar each year.
b. To demonstrate what 3 pounds (1 kilogram) feels like, pass around the bag of sugar. While not exact (your bag of sugar will be close to 5 pounds, or 2 kilograms), it will give students an idea about the volume and weight of sugar consumed via soft drinks. Remind students that, like soft drinks, the bag is full of sugar but has no other nutrients. There are no vitamins or minerals in sugar—just empty calories (meaning energy without any other benefi ts for the body).
c. Remind students that a soft drink is not the only beverage that contains added sugars. Review the list created by the students at the start of this lesson and point out the other drinks that contain large amounts of added sugar (e.g., sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit punches, lemonade, sweetened iced teas).
4. Discuss beverages that provide students with a health benefit, such as water, low-fat or nonfat milk, and 100% fruit juice (in moderation). Complete part III of worksheet 1 (Calcium Switch) to calculate the amount of calcium each child would consume if she chose low-fat or skim milk instead of soft drinks. For this exercise, students will calculate the total ounces of soft drinks consumed the previous day and determine the amount of calcium that they would have consumed if all of the soft drink was low-fat or nonfat milk.
APPLICATION AND EXTENSION OF INFORMATION
1. Ask students to describe why we might want or need sugar. Explain that sugar provides the body with a quick source of energy that tastes good. The problem with consuming sugary drinks or snacks is that the energy boost from these sources does not last.
2. Have the class stand up and do the wave (raising and lowering their arms, as you might do at a sporting event). Explain that this is what happens in our bodies when we drink a whole can of sugary drink all at once (or eat sugary foods, like a pack of jelly beans): There is a quick rise in blood sugar, giving us energy, but our bodies work quickly to pull that sugar out of the blood and into storage (in our muscles). That is why the quick boost of energy we feel after drinking a sugary drink does not last.
3. Discuss better ways to get quick energy that lasts for a long time, so that the body’s energy levels do not shoot up and down. Healthy carbohydrate in whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables provides a longer boost because the sugar and starch in the foods take longer to be digested and enter the blood stream. These foods also provide fiber and many vitamins and minerals. Low-fat and nonfat milk and low-fat or nonfat yogurt also naturally contain carbohydrate and are a good source of protein and calcium. To sustain energy levels, choose snacks that combine healthy sources of carbohydrate (e.g., whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) with healthy sources of protein (e.g., nuts, hummus, and low-fat cheese).
4. If time allows, invite students to create a list of healthy drink options and discuss the best choices according to their health benefits. For example, the students might list plain or sparkling water (alleviates thirst and promotes hydration), nonfat or low-fat milk (provides calcium for strong bones and teeth), and 100% fruit juice (offers vitamins and minerals); note that consumption of 100% fruit juice should be limited to no more than 8 ounces per day.
1. Ask students to calculate how much sugar they would consume from soft drinks in a year if they continued to drink as much as they drank yesterday. (Multiply answer 3 from worksheet 1 by 365.)
2. Discuss the advertisements that they see on television or in print for sugary drinks. Ask the students to pick one ad that is familiar and discuss what they think about the ad. Have them describe the ad, the actors in the ad (for instance, are the children happy or athletic?), and the way the ad makes them feel about the product. For more information about assessing advertisements and the media, visit the Center for Media Literacy at www.medialit.org, an organization that provides resources for educators.
3. Create posters that advertise healthy beverage choices and post them near the cafeteria.