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Can Kids Kick the Sugary Drink Habit?

Nearly 30% of Virginia teenagers are either obese or overweight, and many of those calories come from sugary beverages. A statewide campaign is underway to encourage Virginia teens to forego the sodas and energy drinks for water. WMRA's Jessie Knadler heads to the high school in Buena Vista to find out if the campaign is effective and whether teens would ever consider ditching soda pop and energy drinks for a healthier alternative.

TheVirginia Foundation for Healthy Youth was so successful at reducing adolescent smoking rates in Virginia – rates have been cut by half since 2001 -- that in 2010 the General Assembly tasked the Foundation with tackling youth obesity as well.

Obesity is a big problem. So how does a Foundation based in Richmond get adolescents in places such as Rockbridge County to slim down?  This is where people like Annie LePere come in.

Annie LePere lives in Buena Vista. She has a Masters in public health. She heads up the local Rockbridge Healthy Communities Action Team. Similar teams are all over the state. The Rockbridge HCAT was awarded more than $62,000 by the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, or VFHY, to fight obesity.

LEPERE:  I’ve just always been interested in prevention instead of treating the disease at the end. I prefer finding out what you can do at the beginning to prevent it.

Fighting obesity is really difficult. Most diets fail. So the VFHY zeroes in on small tweaks adolescents can make to their diets that can have a big payoff.

[sounds of Parry McCluer High School at lunchtime]

And one of those tweaks is a statewide campaign called “Rev Your Bev.” On May 18, Annie LePere and her small team set up a display in the lunchroom at Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista.

LEPERE:  We measure out the amount of sugar in the drinks so they can see. It makes a big impact. You don’t think of it when it’s dissolved. When you see it, it’s like, Whoa, I’m eating that much sugar.

Students are encouraged to fill out a survey about their drink habits. They’re then asked to at least sample some basil orange or lime infused water. You know, as a healthy alternative to soda or energy drinks.

Some kids immediately dismissed the concept out of hand. Kyle Rogers drinks a third of a two liter bottle of Dr. Pepper every day.  That’s roughly 260 calories a day just in soda.

KYLE ROGERS: I don’t really care about the sugar amount.  You interview many Americans and they’ll say the exact same thing. I doubt people are really going to change their ways over this, to be honest.

But he did at least try some of the lime infused water.

ROGERS:  The lime one tastes like grass.

Kiana Lawton is on the soccer team so she tries to be healthy. She knows sugary drinks are a big problem among kids.

KIANA LAWTON:  My cousin came over like two years ago and he said he hasn’t drank any water since he was like five….and it terrified me.

She tries to limit herself to a frozen drink from Taco Bell called Mountain Dew Baja Blast – 280 calories per drink – three times a week.

LAWTON:  I know that I’m getting a ton of sugar so I don’t really want to do that but it’s really good so I normally just drink it anyway.

Andrew Downs is a cautionary tale about a soda habit run amok. He cradled a large water bottle in his arms.

ANDREW DOWNS:  Yeah, that’s my baby. I used to drink soda all the time then I got fat.

When he started working at a convenience store, he weighed 184 pounds. He gained 71 pounds within a year. He says it was all from soda.

DOWNS:  We get free soda there all the time…..So I used to drink cup after cup of it. I worked for eight hours a day [and I’d drink] a good six cups. I thought it was from eating a lot more but I thought about it and I haven’t been eating that much more. ….Breathing was getting harder. Not only that, I used to drink so much I’d feel sick too. Now I drink water all the time and I never feel sick anymore.

Since he swore off soda very recently, he’s lost six pounds.

DOWNS:  If you’re like me and easily gain weight I wouldn’t advise drinking it anymore.

Sarah Cook points out that a lot of teens end up drinking sugary beverages because that’s all there is.

SARAH COOK: It’s really hard because at work the only thing to buy that’s cheaper than water is the soda machine. We get sodas for 65 cents and waters are a dollar.

A lot of students interacted with the display, filled out the surveys. The surveys will be collected and analyzed by the VFHY to get a clearer picture of just how many sugary beverages teens are consuming.

But it’s unclear whether initiatives like Rev Your Bev are actually effective, whether raising awareness actually leads to long term behavior change. The most that LePere and her team probably can hope for at this point is that a seed will be planted. Kids will at least think twice before cracking open an energy drink.

Remember Kyle? He ended up coming back four times for more lime infused water, which he kept calling “grass water.”

LEPERE:  You keep coming back for more. You must like it.

ROGERS:  I do like it. It tastes like fruity grass water.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag