Water First For Thirst Promotes Healthy Beverage Consumption

By Kaitlin Bradley
Outreach and Engagement Communications Student Intern

Health campaigns have picked up in popularity in recent years, as Americans face a staggering increase in obesity rates. While this epidemic does affect adults, one of the more prominent concerns is its impact on children, due to lower levels of activity and higher consumption of unhealthy foods. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 20% of children and teenagers in the U.S. are obese.

One group at Ohio State is working to resolve this issue through a healthy consumption program called Water First for Thirst. The program is part of a statewide campaign to educate Ohioans about why water should be the first beverage of choice.

Water First for Thirst is an effort by the Ohio Department of Health and local health departments to promote water consumption across our state. Initially, a Water First for Thirst campaign aimed at preschool-age children was developed by Columbus Public Health. At Ohio State, the scope of the program was recently broadened by engaging teens in a new 4-H Youth Development Healthy Living initiative under the leadership of Carol Smathers, Theresa Ferrari, and Shawna Hite. This Water First for Thirst project was funded by an OSU CARES grant.

Smathers, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, discussed how research was used to help this movement to gain ground.

"We started by looking at what the biggest health concerns are for youth and this includes the growing prevalence for obesity. One of the biggest concerns and most preventable factors with that is the consumption of sweetened beverages," Smathers said.

Students at a water first for thirst event

Participants trade sweetened beverages for water.

Ferrari, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, stresses the need for youth involvement in health initiative programs, especially on the local level, to help spread the message to their peers.

"The strategies had to be different for these different age groups. We chose to involve teens for broader scope and age range. But that was where getting 4-H involved was instrumental to this program's current successes," Ferrari shared.

The team has aimed to encourage people to think twice about grabbing a soda or a sugar-infused coffee drink in favor of water, which is probably what their body is actually asking for. Beverages filled with sugar and fat are a significant contributor to obesity, especially in children, in part because high-sugar drinks don't satisfy appetites the way foods do.

Since the program has only been up and running for a matter of months now in this particular context, the team has limited quantitative data that participants are consuming more water, but their observations are an indication that the program is having an effect.

"While we haven't measured whether or not participants are drinking more water, our program has demonstrated increased leadership and increased ability to promote water consumption among participants, and has proven to be a catalyst for a statewide healthy living program. We have also received grant funding to do this and have been involving multiple community partners, so we're really making our own path," Ferrari said.

More students at a water first for thirst event

Participants learn more about the health benefits of water.

Hite, an OSU Extension Healthy People Program Specialist, observed the quality of information being spread by getting teens involved and allowing them to bring their own ideas to the project's development.

"The teens who took part came away with things they actually did and experiences, since they actually were physically involved in the advocacy for this program. We had one student who even created a petition to have her school install water-bottle filling stations for student use, while another student gave voluntary demonstrations about the program's lessons on sugar-sweetened beverages," Hite said.

The initial impact of Water First for Thirst led to an award for the team's poster at the national Engagement Scholarship Consortium Conference in the "ways to inspire reciprocity among partners" category. The team's poster focused on the mutual benefits of this health initiative, including those for university students and faculty.

That last sentiment is perhaps the tenant of this whole initiative: inclusivity. The inclusion of students has helped the program to blossom and engage more people who would not have known about it without their voluntary ideas and support.


Contact: Carol Smathers, smathers.14@osu.edu and Theresa Ferrari, ferrari.8@osu.edu