The availability and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in secondary schools is associated with higher adolescent obesity rates in British Columbia (BC), Canada, according to a study published in the open access International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

As with most developed countries, the percentage of Canadian youths aged 6-17 that were overweight or obese was 19.5% and 11.6%, respectively, recorded in 2010. Sugar (natural and added) accounts for 25% of total calorie intake in Canadian adolescents, with 36-44% of this coming from added sugars, predominantly from SSBs.

Children consume around 35-47% of their dietary intake in the school environment. Previous studies have found that the availability of particular foods or beverages at school is associated with their increased consumption. Researchers from University of British Columbia and the Child Family Research Institute in BC investigated the school food environment and the association of availability and consumption of SSBs with students' BMI from grades 7 to 12 (ages 12 to 18).

The scientists used data from the province-wide 2008 BC Adolescent Health Survey and sent questionnaires to school principals across BC. A total of 11,385 students from 174 secondary schools provided data for the analyses. Equal numbers of boys and girls responded. The respondents had an average age of 15 years old and 12.7% were categorized as overweight and 3.9% obese.

The results were broken down and obese children were compared to normal weight students in relation to factors such as school setting, sex, availability of SSBs at school, and student consumption of SSBs. It was found that students from suburban and rural schools were more likely to be obese than those who attended urban schools. Girls had lower odds of being obese than boys. Students who attended schools where SSBs were available, and who reported consuming more than one SSB in the previous day, were more likely to be obese.

Louise Masse, Associate Professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health and lead author of the article, says: "The results of this study provide further evidence to support the important role of schools in shaping adolescents' dietary habits. Availability of SSBs at school increased students' consumption and they are more likely to be obese."

The researchers noted limitations in their study. All measurements were based on self-reported data, which is linked to measurement errors that can mask or dampen existing associations. The results may not generalizable across Canada or globally as each territory and country has their own policies/guidelines with regard to food environment in public schools.

Masse also says: "Creating school environments that are more conducive to healthy eating and implementing a comprehensive approach that includes all of the environments in which adolescents spend their time, will likely provide the greatest benefit in supporting healthy food choices and healthy weights."