If you are making sure your children are eating their fruits and veggies while avoiding sugar, you may think they are maintaining a healthy diet. However, a new study suggests that most kids in the United States are not getting enough of one important ingredient: water.
Erica Kenney and other researchers at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University published their study Thursday in The American Journal of Public Health. They were originally researching ways to get kids to drink less sugary beverages in school, but were surprised at what they found.
The researchers thought they would find that children tended to drink sugary beverages instead of healthier options like water. However, what they found was that kids are not only not drinking enough water, they just are not taking in enough fluid of any kind.
By looking at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the researchers analyzed the chemical properties of participants’ urine. This allowed them to determine whether they were getting enough fluid, since the urine of those that are dehydrated tends to be darker and higher in salt.
The results were surprising. More than half of the students studied between 2009 and 2012, who were aged six to nineteen, showed signs of being at least somewhat dehydrated. About a quarter of those surveyed said they did not drink any water at all. While this did not mean that their lives were threatened with severe dehydration, even mild dehydration can cause health problems.
Children can be more susceptible to dehydration than adults because of their high surface area and slower ability to acclimate to heat. Even when children are only mildly dehydrated, they can feel more fatigued, it can affect their mood and make them more irritable, it can give them a headache, and it may impair their ability to learn. This could have small but troubling effects on a child’s health and school performance. In more severe cases, dehydration could lead to kidney failure or heat stroke.
There could be a few factors at work that are reducing the amount of water kids consume. One is the prevalence of sugary beverages versus pure water, although these drinks at least give the kids a small amount hydration. Another problem could be the negative perception of tap water. As parents and children are more used to drinking bottled beverages, they are less likely to drink or trust tap water, normally found in water fountains. Some schools have concerns about possible contaminants like lead from aging pipes, so they have blocked access to water fountains altogether, leaving school children with few other choices. Some speculate that children may be avoiding drinking liquids while at school because they want to avoid using the school washroom, maybe because of embarrassment and lack of privacy or maybe because of the chance of being bullied there.
Depending on their age and size, children and teenagers should take in two or three quarts of water each day, which is equivalent to 1.7 to 3.3 liters. Teenage boys generally need more water than girls as well. Although water is best, the total intake does not need to come from water alone. Children and teens can get their fluid requirements from other drinks like fruit juices, from liquid foods like soup, and from juicy foods like fruit and vegetables.
There are a few ways parents can try to get their kids to drink more water. The first step is to remind them to drink water, because they will not necessarily feel thirsty when they are slightly dehydrated. For picky children, parents can add an orange slice or a cucumber to water to give it a slight flavor. Parents can also freeze a water bottle, using it as an ice pack in a child’s lunch and ensuring it is cold when they are ready to drink it at noon. Even increasing water intake by one cup can improve a child’s hydration, so there is hope for America’s dehydrated youth.