Researchers study a pilot program in New York City and conclude that giving students water with school lunches could significantly reduce childhood obesity.

There might be an easy way to reduce the rates of childhood and adult obesity in the United States.

Serve water with school lunches.

That’s the finding of a study from the University of Illinois.

Researchers say they concluded that encouraging students to drink water during lunch could prevent more than half a million young people in the United States from becoming overweight or obese.

That, in turn, could reduce associated medical and societal costs by $13 billion.

The study, a cost-benefit analysis, was based on a pilot program in 1,200 elementary and middle schools in New York City.

“In 2009, New York’s Department of Education and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched an intervention to improve plain water access at lunchtime by placing water dispensers in school cafeterias,” Ruopeng An, PhD, a kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, told Healthline.

“Students in intervention schools had a three-fold increase in plain water consumption and a small decline in milk consumption in comparison to their control school counterparts,” he added.

An explored the cost of expanding the New York City pilot program to all public and private schools in the United States.

He concluded making the program available nationwide would cost $18 per student for the entirety of their schooling.

This would yield a saving to society of $174 per person, adding up to the $13 billion overall savings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 13 million children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 in the United States are obese.

More than one third of adults (36 percent) are obese.

The estimated annual medical cost due to obesity was estimated at $147 billion in 2008.

Expanding the availability of water at school lunches could represent a cost-effective method of reducing obesity in the United States.

“The study demonstrates the impact that even small steps can have in promoting healthy body weight. It is a positive adjunct to some of the other nutrition strategies being incorporated into schools, including more whole wheat and salad bars,” Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor in public health at the University of South Florida, told Healthline.

“The habits we develop as children, even as young as two and three, strongly influence the behavior we carry into adulthood. This is why establishing healthy lifestyle behaviors in childhood is critical to preventing obesity and other disease in the future,” she added.

Consumption of sugary drinks like soda has contributed to increased rates of obesity in the United States.

A 20-ounce soda has 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar and more than 240 calories.

Consuming this amount of calories in liquid form rather than solid food will not make a person feel full, and typically means they won’t compensate for the calorie intake by eating less.

A 2011 study found that on any day, half the population of the United States drinks sugary drinks.

About 5 percent of those get at least 567 calories, and 1 in 4 get 200 calories from these drinks.

For teenagers, sugary beverages such as soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks, are the top source of calories at around 226 calories per day.

“Sugar sweetened beverages provide a ton of calories without filling you up. Some past studies have shown that sugary beverages may even increase the risk for leptin resistance as well, which in turn may make it hard to even decipher when fullness has been achieved. It may also set the stage for prediabetes,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who manages the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Healthline.

She says parents can take steps to reduce their child’s desire for sweetened beverages, but concedes it won’t be easy as sugary beverages are everywhere.

“The only way to help reduce it is to eliminate it as an option at home, and, if at a social gathering, communicate that these products are only a ‘once in a while’ type food, like a dessert. The key here is to reduce the need, dependency, and intenseness of sweet on the taste buds. Like adults, once they go without it for a long enough time, they lose the desire to have it,” she said.

Wright says at meal times, the best drinks for children to have are low-fat dairy or water.

Children aged 2 to 8 should consume two cups of water per day and children aged 9 to 18 should consume three cups per day.

If your child finds water boring, Wright says to get creative.

“Have fun with water. Have a water pitcher in the refrigerator and flavor it with fresh cut lemons, cantaloupe, cucumbers, or berries. Let your children pick out a favorite reusable water bottle,” she said.

As a general rule, she says adults should be consuming 2.7 liters a day and children should have 1.7 liters.

Around 80 percent of that will come from drinks but 20 percent will come from food.

“Water is an essential nutrient for our body’s health. Additionally, water is a natural appetite suppressant so it aids in maintaining a healthy weight. The vast majority of healthy people adequately meet their daily hydration needs by letting thirst be their guide,” Wright said.