Growing up with two pediatricians as parents, I was fortunate to be educated early in life about the importance of healthy habits. I was also fortunate enough to never miss school because my parents knew I wasn’t actually sick every morning. My parents instilled a few clear rules in me as a kid: Brush your teeth twice a day, finish your homework right after school, and most importantly, do not drink soda or other sugary beverages at home. It was this third rule that I was most upset with as a kid, but perhaps the one I am now most grateful for.
As I have continued my own medical education over the past few years, I have seen firsthand the growing rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes that affect so many Americans. In Philadelphia, nearly 22% of children are impacted by obesity. Research has shown that the vast majority of U.S. households eat out on average more than five times a week. Children who eat at fast-food or full-service restaurants consume more calories, fat, and sugary drinks than those who eat at home.
The American Heart Association recommends that children have no more than one 8-ounce sugary drink a week. Yet children are consuming as much as 10 times that amount. In turn, children who consume more sugary drinks are 55% more likely to develop chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. We cannot allow these trends to continue.
To decrease sugary beverage consumption and promote healthy habits, Philadelphia’s City Council unanimously passed a restaurant kids’ meal policy last week. The bill, introduced by Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown, stipulates that kids’ meals sold in the city must automatically come with water, milk, or 100% fruit or vegetable juice under 8 ounces. Families can still request more sugary beverages, which vendors are permitted to sell, but water, milk, and 100% juices are now the default beverages served with kids’ meals.
Interestingly, studies from a wide range of fields show that “automatic options” exert a powerful influence on choice, as the automatic option is more likely to be chosen. By introducing the healthy beverage as the automatic option, we are conveying an incredibly important message to children: that healthy choices are the norm, not the exception or alternative.
Moving forward, the “automatically healthy” beverage selections make it easier for parents to start the meal off right and gives families in Philadelphia an opportunity to engage restaurants, community groups, and the public in ongoing discussion about the importance of healthy beverage options for children.
In hindsight, while I may not have agreed with everything that my parents taught me as a kid, I now realize why they stressed the importance of learning healthy habits at a young age. In establishing a healthier kids’ meal policy, we are empowering children to form better eating and drinking habits that they will carry throughout their lifetimes.
Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown and the rest of City Council have taken a positive step to improve the health outcomes of our city’s children by reducing sugary beverage consumption. Moving forward, this bill should act as the first of many steps encouraging children to make healthy food and beverage choices. Our next step should be further reducing consumption of fruit juice — also high in sugar and calories — and normalizing healthier choices.
Patrick Schlitt is a medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College.