By Aly Walansky
Updated January 21, 2016
Credit: Wealan Pollard

Everyone seems to be stressing about upward trends in weight and health issues among kids. Plans to remove sugary drinks from cafeterias, incorporate more exercise into their lives and serve fresh produce will all help. But the answer seems to be pretty simple: just offer them the option of water.

A study conducted by the NYU Langone Medical Center, New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy, and the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs placed water coolers in 483 school cafeterias in schools across NYC. These schools noticed a weight drop among students, who were choosing water over beverages like chocolate milk.

“There has been research connecting water with decreasing the amount of food eaten at a meal. Sometimes we can confuse thirst with hunger. Water provides volume in the stomach therefore decreasing room for food, leading to less food consumption,” says Diana Cuy Castellanos, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of health and sports science at the University of Dayton, a volunteer with the Kids Eat Right Campaign. “If children are drinking less milk or juice due to consuming water before the meal, this may also lead to a decreased caloric consumption. The only caveat is ensuring water is not replacing nutrient dense beverages and foods,” says Castellanos. Simple interventions can make a big difference, she says. “The issue will be that although it does seem simple, we still have to obtain buy-in from school administrators and staff."

It seems that easy access to water during lunch may lead kids to not choose options like juice, milk or soda, thereby avoiding calories but also excess sugar.

“The results of this study are not surprising. Water is the body’s most critical nutrient and unfortunately, we are not consuming adequate amounts—including kids. Water has many functions in the body, one of which helps to keep us full. Having these types of water-jets in schools allows children access to free, clean water which theoretically may help them reduce the number of calories they consume throughout the day. Those calories may be from sweetened beverages, the a la carte lines at school or even after school,” says Kristi King, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital. “The Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 requires free water to be offered during lunch and breakfast when consumed in the cafeteria. I would imagine having water in a dispenser, not just a fountain, with free cups might make it more enticing to drink, especially for younger children.”