KU News Service

Community-based study shows potential to help cut sugary drink consumption

Fri, 02/07/2014

LAWRENCE — Sugary drinks are nearly ubiquitous in the United States, contributing to health problems such as obesity, diabetes and others. Yet there are almost no interventions designed to help adults reduce their consumption of the beverages, and none are focused on helping low-income, rural individuals with low health literacy. A University of Kansas professor has co-authored a study detailing an intervention designed to help that population increase their health and media literacy and thereby reduce their sugary drink consumption.

Yvonnes Chen, assistant professor of journalism, was co-author of a study designed to test a six-month, community-based intervention dedicated to helping individuals reduce the amount of sugary drinks they consume. Funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the program worked with low-income individuals with low-health literacy in rural southwest Virginia. The researchers hope to investigate the effectiveness of the program in a community-based setting and further explore how they can make it available for communities who would like to implement it.

“Our goal is to reduce sugary drink consumption among rural adults with low health literacy, and they tend to drink more sugary drinks,” Chen said. “In essence, people who can’t afford to get sick are often the ones to most likely take part in unhealthy behaviors.”

Chen and co-authors designed an intervention called SIP smarter. They worked with individuals to increase their health literacy, providing education about health, risks associated with sugary drinks and how to reduce consumption. Details of the intervention content and data collection procedures were published in the journal Contemporary Clinical Trials. The study was co-authored by Jamie Zoellner, Brenda Davy, Valisa Hedrick, Terri Corsi and Paul Estabrooks, all of Virginia Tech University. While very few American adults adhere to the USDA’s recommendation of consuming less than 8 ounces of sugary drinks per day, the majority of the study’s participants were doing so by the time they completed the intervention, based on an initial analysis of the data.

The intervention used a variety of strategies to improve health literacy by giving participants quantitative information they could use in every-day decision making. Lessons included dangers of overconsumption illustrated by hands-on demonstrations such as showing participants the actual amount of sugar contained in beverages, conversations with their fellow participants and other hands-on activities.

Researchers also connected health literacy to media literacy, a topic they’ve explored in researching how media affects youths’ decisions on whether to start smoking. Television advertising is one of the most common forms of sugary drink messaging people receive. Yet, most don’t think of themselves as the product in the experience, but the lessons point out that in many ways they are, as beverage manufacturers buy time from networks to access people with messages for their product.

“Even if we deny their validity, these messages have an effect on us,” Chen said. “They’re everywhere in our lives, and we see them every day.”

The program also provided strategies for individuals to reduce their sugary drink consumption. Many participants claimed they don’t like the taste of diet or sugar-free drinks, yet in a blind taste test they could rarely tell the difference. Others claimed not to like the taste of water. The program suggested overcoming that with lemon in water or by using sugar-free water flavoring packets. Lessons also included a look at the cost of sugary drinks, not only in money people can save by not buying them, but the comparative cost of the beverages next to the cost of health care required for health problems associated with excessive sugary drink consumption.

Following the intervention, preliminary results indicated that participants all had improved health and media literacy, and perhaps most importantly, many had also reduced their consumption to the recommended 8 ounces or less per day and stuck with it. Chen said the community-based setting, and not using fear tactics like many programs do, is likely why it was successful. The fact that it was community-based and not carried out in a clinical setting was also key. Researchers hope to continue to evaluate the intervention and examine ways that it can be made available in an affordable way that communities can use on their own.

“What’s unique about this is we rooted everything in the community, not in a clinical setting,” Chen said. “I think it’s something we could incorporate into efforts to give people ownership in their health so they can make informed decisions and are not just being preached to.”

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