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Follow the Signs



Teenagers aren’t exactly known for listening to their elders, especially when it comes to their health habits. But as it turns out, they do pay attention — it’s just a matter of how you reach them.
Our friends at Healthy Eating Research recently conducted a study to find out whether posting calorie information about sugary drinks in corner markets in low-income, predominately Black neighborhoods would have any effect on teens’ purchasing habits. Turns out, it did — the teens were less likely to buy a sugary drink by roughly 40 percent compared with markets that offered no nutritional information.
“We just thought, ‘Let’s give adolescents simple information in corner stores and see what happens,” explains lead researcher Sara Bleich, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s the little band-aid solutions like this that could potentially have an impact.”
Perhaps the most amazing part of the study wasn’t that the teens were less likely to buy the sugary drinks, but why. Researchers posted three different types of messages for the youngsters, and they found that message mattered.
One sign noted that a typical bottle of soda or fruit drink contains 250 calories; another explained that a bottle of a sugary drink contains 10 percent of a person’s daily recommended calories; and the third explained that it takes 50 minutes of jogging for the average teenager to burn off the calories contained in a single bottle of soda or fruit drink. 
All the signs were effective, but teens who saw the jogging sign were 50 percent less likely to buy a sugary drink, making it by far the most effective message. Bleich thinks that’s because exercise is something teens can relate to, compared to calories, which they might not always understand.
“How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, I’ll just burn it off,” Bleich adds. “People don’t realize how many calories are in [a sugary] drink.”
Teens weren’t just less likely to buy sugary drinks, either. Many also decided to buy non-sugary beverages such as water or diet soda instead. 
At the start of the study, sales of those drinks accounted for 6.7 percent of purchases, while that total rose to 12 to 14 percent at the end (depending on the sign).
The report is timely, considering that fast food and chain restaurants nationwide are preparing to include calorie information on their menus next year as part of a government mandate. Bleich thinks her research can help determine how best to display such information. “Maybe absolute calories isn’t the best way to reach people,” she says.
Bleich and her colleagues are aiming to expand their research. Originally, they decided to see if they could make progress in low-income, predominately Black neighborhoods because their previous research had shown black adolescents consume roughly 300 calories per day from sugary drinks — a sizable amount. 
After the success of their initial research, they are planning to conduct a larger study that also looks at Hispanic youth, who have also been found to consume a high amount of sugary drinks.
Researchers hope to use focus groups to refine their research, determining whether using examples of different types of physical activity — saying shooting hoops for an hour — produces different results. They also hope to determine whether the informational signage has an effect in the long-term, perhaps six months down the road, Bleich says.
Full disclosure: Healthy Eating Research is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). is a project of RWJF.