How water-bottle fill stations can impact children's health, according to new study

Water fountain
Increased access to drinking water could improve kids' health, a new study found. A hallway water fountain is shown in San Francisco International High School in California's Bay Area in October 2017. Photo credit: Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle / AP

By Madeline Holcombe of CNN

Making water more accessible to kids leads to an increase in hydration and a decrease in children being overweight, according to a new study. And the change didn't require a focus on children's weight.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, included more than 1200 students across 18 schools in California's Bay Area.

"The study was conducted in racially and ethnically diverse and low-income elementary schools, where students are at most risk for chronic health problems, including overweight and obesity," said lead study author Dr Anisha Patel, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in California.

Half of the schools were gifted water dispensers in the cafeteria and water-bottle filling stations in areas of high traffic, Patel said. The other half didn't make any changes. The group that gained more access to water were also given cups or bottles as well as educational materials about how important it is to drink enough water.

"Not only for overall health, including not only overweight prevention… but we also talked about the importance of tap water for environmental reasons, as well as the fiscal benefits of drinking water instead of other beverages that are more costly," she added.

At the end of the 15-month study period, the schools in the control group had more than seven times the prevalence of students classified as overweight than the schools that gained access to drinking water, the study showed.

"I always tell people, drink water first - as that will reduce a person's thirst and likelihood that they will drink sugary drinks. One of my papers showed that children who do not drink water on a given day consume twice the number of calories from sugary drinks as children that drank water," said Dr Asher Rosinger, associate professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Water, Health and Nutrition Lab at Pennsylvania State University. Rosinger was not involved in the study.

But there are many reasons why hydration is important, and Patel said she hopes future studies will look at the other health benefits more access to water can provide.

How to get your kids more water

As the new academic year approaches, reusable water bottles should be an important item on the back-to-school list, Patel said.

"It's important to make sure that children have access to drinking vessels so they can actually drink water throughout the day," she added. "If they don't have a way to actually drink the water, then they only can take a few sips at a time."

If water doesn't sound very enticing, you can always find ways to flavor it with fruit or herbs, Patel said.

But as families try to promote drinking enough water to their kids, it is important that schools, communities and governing bodies also make it a priority, Rosinger said.

"We have to prioritize access to clean and safe water, particularly for low- and marginalized populations in the US," he said. "My work has shown that many minority groups in the US do not trust tap water because of historical reasons of water quality violations and as a result they opt for sugary drinks or more expensive bottled water.

"Making sure that everyone has access to free or at least affordable clean water is paramount for health and well-being."

Don't serve health info with a side of shame

A difficult but important balance to strike is promoting healthy behaviors in kids without encouraging an unhealthy relationship with food, said Oona Hanson, a Los Angeles-based parent coach in private practice, who was not involved in the study.

It's great to promote kids drinking the amount of water that their body needs, but families shouldn't stress a concern for weight in the process, added Hanson, who is also a family mentor at Equip, an eating disorder treatment program.

Encouraging without judgment can mean not demonizing caloric beverages or latching on to specific numbers when it comes to how much water your child should drink in a day unless there is a health condition your family is monitoring, she said.

That kind of behavior can turn quickly into a disordered relationship, she said.

"If we really care about kids' health, we won't give them health information with a side of body shame, because we know weight stigma hurts kids' health," Hanson said.