Matt Perry, an employee of Express Mart #4, walks through the aisle to restock cans of soda. Photo by Scott Ball.
An employee of Express Mart #4 restocks canned sodas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio babies and preschoolers face a silently rising health threat: sugary drinks.

Latino infants are twice as likely as non-Latino babies to be fed sugary drinks, and by age 2, three out of four Latino kids have had a sugary drink.

Why is this bad news for San Antonio’s 70% Latino kids?

Being Latino and drinking sugary beverages at least once a week were associated with 2.3 times the odds of severe obesity in kindergarten. This can lead to obesity-related diseases like diabetes, according to the new Sugary Drinks and Latino Kids research package released Dec. 5, 2016, by Salud America!, an obesity prevention network at UT Health San Antonio.

The City of San Antonio and Bexar County have made great strides to promote healthy lifestyles which have contributed to a recent drop in local adult obesity rates – but a lot work remains to be done.

Bexar County, for example, is home to more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores per 100,000 people than the state and nation, according to a Salud America! Salud Report Card.

Sugary drink consumption compounds the issue.

“We have to work together to do more to reduce sugar consumption and help kids grow up at a healthy weight, well before they ever enter kindergarten,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! and the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio.

Why Are Sugary Drinks a Problem for Kids?

Food and drinks fed to kids in early childhood can impact weight status.

Some foods and drinks – such as yogurts, juices, and flavored milks – are marketed as healthy for children, but can actually be high in sugar and low in nutritional value.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not giving 1- to 6-year-olds more than 4-6 ounces of juice a day or 7- to 12-year-olds more than 8-12 ounces a day.

A 16 ounce can of Coca-Cola is held in the hand. The drink includes 52 grams of sugar. Photo by Scott Ball.
A 16 ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 52 grams of sugar. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The American Heart Association is even stricter as it urges parents not to give children under the age of 2 foods or drinks with added sugars, and to restrict added sugars to less than six teaspoons a day for children ages 2-18.

An average 20-ounce soda contains about 16 teaspoons of added sugar.

“The ages of 0-5 years are crucial to a child’s social, emotional, and physical well-being,” Dr. Ramirez said. “Lessening children’s consumption of sugar in these early years would help decrease their risk of developing unhealthy weight, diabetes, and heart disease.”

What Changes Can Help?

Several strategies are emerging to reduce kids’ sugary drink consumption, according to the new research by Salud America! and its partner, Bridging the Gap, a research team the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Some early childcare centers still report serving sugary drinks to kids ages 0-5. All early childcare centers should consider adopting best practices from the revised Child and Adult Care Food Program guidelines, namely promoting the consumption of water in place of sugary drinks.

Mexican-American and lower-income kids consume less water than white kids on average, but when New York elementary and middle schools replaced vending machines with water jets, students’ likelihood of being overweight dropped more than 0.6 percentage points.

A gas station worker stocks grape soda in a display case. Overconsumption of sugary drinks are a major contributor to adult and adolescent obesity in Bexar County. Photo by Scott Ball
A gas station worker stocks grape soda in a display case. Overconsumption of sugary drinks is a major contributor to adult and adolescent obesity in Bexar County. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Increasing the prices of sugary drinks reduces consumption and, ultimately, could improve health. Sugary drink pricing initiatives are in place in Berkeley, Calif., will go into effect in January in Philadelphia, and were approved in five other localities in California, Colorado, and Illinois in November 2016.

Also, stronger restrictions on sugary drink marketing to kids are necessary to achieve significant reductions in exposure to advertising and promotion.

“There are many strategies bubbling up to really promote water, which is the healthiest drink option available to Latino and all kids,” Dr. Ramirez said. “Latino preschoolers who didn’t consume sugary drinks were 31% less likely to be obese than those with a high intake.”

Who Is Stepping Up Against Sugary Drinks in San Antonio and Beyond?

The good news is that students, parents, clinicians, and local leaders in San Antonio and beyond are actively finding ways to promote healthy drinks over sugary drinks.

Take for instance, Praxina Guerra.

Guerra, while a fifth-grader at Five Palms Elementary School in San Antonio, worked with her mentor and P.E. coach Cathy Lopez to become a student ambassador for health with the San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council.

Guerra and Lopez partnered with Stacey Estrada, a parent and school board member, to bring a new hydration station to the school to increase water consumption.

All it took was researching the cost of the hydration station, presenting the idea to the school’s principal, and gathering financial support from City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and others. Within days of contacting local officials, the school had enough funds to install the new hydration station.

Guerra gathered a group of her friends to create “rethink your drink” signs to hang through the hallways and in the cafeteria. She also started monthly Wellness Wednesday fitness events, available to both parents and students during after-school hours.

To inform and educate the San Antonio community on just how much sugar is in the beverages people consume daily, health officials and community leaders partnered to launch the bilingual Sugar-Packed marketing campaign.

After San Antonio’s previous attempts to tackle sugary drink consumption fizzled, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and his partners reignited a campaign against sugar with hopes of changing the way residents look at its effect on health.

YouTube video

The campaign includes print and online materials, including a sugar calculator tool, educational brochures, and posters.

Physicians and clinicians like Dr. Marta Katalenas are also taking steps to prevent sugary drink consumption among children and their families.

To inspire change, Katalenas launched a one-month resolution for families to refrain from drinking sodas or any form of sugary drinks.

YouTube video

As a result of the campaign and the conversations Katalenas has had with parents, more families are aware of the hidden dangers behind juices and sugary drinks for children.

Like many parents Gabi Medina, a mom from Denver, was initially weary of serving tap water to her 10-year-old daughter. Having grown up in Mexico where the water is not always safe to drink, she was concerned about the quality of Denver’s tap water.

After volunteering with a local community organization Westwood Unidos and learning from her dentist that tap water can promote healthy teeth, Medina was encouraged to spread the word about drinking water instead of juices and sodas to her peers.

This was especially important to Medina because Latino kindergartners were more likely to have untreated tooth decay and so many parents relied on sugary drinks. If a child does not like to drink water Medina recommends that parents add ice and fruit to the water.

Small changes can make a huge difference.

“Many parents don’t know how to take care of their kids’ teeth, and with this campaign, I am helping them learn, this is what motivates me to work,” Medina said.

What Can You Do?

As the Latino youth population continues to grow in San Antonio and beyond, it’s imperative that people and communities work to promote health equity by bringing healthier drink options to environments where 0- to 5-year-old kids spend the majority of their time.

Follow in the footsteps of Guerra, Wolff, Katalenas, and Medina, and start a healthy change in your school or community.

Use our resources and join our Salud America! online community for help from others in your area. Our team of curators who can provide data, maps, case studies, and other support.

You’re also invited to share your tips and thoughts at our next #SaludTues “Sugary Drinks and Latino Kids” tweetchat on Twitter, at 12 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.

Together we can make a healthy difference for our community.

Rosalie Aguilar is a research area specialist for Salud America! and the Institute for Health Promotion Research at The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She curates content, including news, research,...