Commentary: One less sugar sweetened drink can make a difference

  • Nikki Highsmith Vernick
Nikki Highsmith Vernick (Submitted photo )
May 30, 2012|By Nikki Highsmith Vernick

Growing up in Texas, I played fast pitch softball. After playing in the hot Texas sun, our team, the Sweetpeas, had a snack of oranges and water, in containers brought from home.

Today, my husband and I are new Howard County residents and we have gotten our children, ages 6 and 4, involved in sports activities, beginning with T-ball.

We have been struck by the well-groomed baseball fields and the engaged volunteer parents. We were impressed with it all — until the post-game snacks came out.

Over the last three weeks, these snacks have included chips, fruit roll-ups, sugary rice treats, chocolate-covered doughnuts with rainbow sprinkles, assorted fruit punch and sports drinks.

Is one unhealthy snack or drink after a ballgame the end of the world? Of course not. But it is emblematic of a larger problem. I know that parents are busy, convenience is at a premium, marketing is all-persuasive, and labels are hard to understand.

But as a mom, I am worried that we are raising the first generation of children who will not live as long as their parents. I know other parents share my concern.

In Maryland, almost one child out of every three is overweight or obese. Obesity contributes to five of the 10 leading causes of death in Americans, including cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. For far too many young people, these diseases cause major physical problems and can lead to early death.

I admit it — I, too, have been guilty of bringing teeth-jangling sweets to baseball games in the past. But these staggering statistics have led me to look for healthier alternatives.

I moved to Maryland to take over as president of the Horizon Foundation, a health care philanthropy focused on improving health and wellness in Howard County.

Recently, Howard County hosted a national premiere of "The Weight of the Nation," a four-part HBO documentary series. I hope the series provided a jolt to parents and communities with its startling details about the food and beverage advertising that bombards our children; the not-so-healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks served in some schools; the sugary beverages our children are consuming in increasing quantities; and the unhealthy snacks and drinks served after soccer, T-ball and lacrosse games.

The one theme that emerges clearly in the documentary — we mean to please, but in doing so, we are failing our children.

What if we could make one community and parental change to help turn things around?

Experts say that sugary drinks are the largest single source of added sugar in our children's diets and a major source of excess calories. Over the last decade, the variety of sugary drinks has exploded. Kids' drinks of the past like low-fat milk and water (or juice cut in half with water, like my mom used to serve) have been replaced by sodas, fake juices, sports drinks, energy drinks, vitamin-flavored waters and sweetened teas.

Just one serving of a typical sugary drink contains more added sugar than is recommended over the course of an entire day for a 4- to- 8-year-old boy or a 4- to 13-year-old girl.

If we can eliminate even one sugary drink a day from a child's life, we can cut out pounds and save lives.

Let's rethink what we drink and begin to reverse our childhood obesity epidemic.

Parents, armed with more knowledge and awareness, can make big changes. I am hopeful that this summer, in the warm Maryland sun, after doubles are hit and double plays are made (or not), our kids will enjoy cut-up oranges and water, supplied by parents who have newfound knowledge and commitment to help their kids stay healthy.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick is president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation in Columbia and the mother of Zach, 6, and Ellie, 4. Her email is nhighsmith_vernick@thehorizonfoundation.org.

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