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Healthy Balance

This 1 Change Can Help Save Appalachians From Deadly Diseases

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More of the calories Americans take in come from sugary drinks, like soda and sweet tea, than from any other source. They make up about 7% of the calories we take in each day. And in southwest Virginia, it's even higher. On average, adults drink 2-3 times more sugary drinks in Appalachia than in other parts of the country. Sugary drinks make up about 14% of the calories they take in.

That puts folks in this region at higher risk for a ton of health problems, many related to obesity:

At UVA Health, it's not just our mission to treat individual patients. We also look at something called population health. That means looking at communities of people. When we find out one community is less healthy than others, we look for ways to help that community.

In this case, we're working to help Appalachians drink fewer of these types of drinks so they have fewer health problems.

Why Do Appalachians Drink More Sugary Drinks?

To help with a population health issue, we have to ask why it's happening. Often, the answer is social determinants of health. That means where we're born, the communities we live in, and the things we have or don't have can all affect our health. Are you rich or poor? Does your neighborhood have more farmer's markets or convenience stores? Is it safe and easy to exercise outside where you live? All these things make it easier or harder to be healthy.

Better Cancer Treatment and Prevention Across Virginia

This population health intervention is just one way UVA Cancer Center is helping more Virginians avoid and beat cancer.

There are several reasons why Appalachians drink more sugary drinks, and they all work together. More than half of families in southwest Virginia don't make enough money to meet their basic needs. That's higher than the rest of Virginia.

That means families struggle to afford food, have less access to education, and might not be able to afford a doctor. Healthy food is more expensive. You might have lower health literacy — through no fault of your own. That means how well you can find, understand, and use health information — including how sugary drinks affect your health.

How UVA Health Is Changing Outcomes in Southeast Virginia

So we know Appalachians drink more sugary drinks, which harms their health. And we've figured out some of the reasons why. How do we change things?

More than a decade ago, UVA researchers partnered with community organizations in southwest Virginia. They created several interactive programs to teach children and adults how sugary drinks affect their health and help them drink fewer of them.

It worked. Adults and kids who took part in the program began drinking fewer sugary drinks. It helped some of them lose weight and improve their quality of life.

Plans to Help More People

Now the research team hopes to reach even more people. They're launching an online program called iSIPsmarter using a 5-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

“Our experience in the region shows that reducing sugary drinks is one of the first and most important steps to improving overall health,” says lead investigator Jamie Zoellner, PhD, RD. “We think this free, web-based program will increase residents’ access to health education.”

The program includes:

“We’re not encouraging folks to go cold turkey on their sugary drinks,” Zoellner explains. “We know that might backfire. We’re working to help them set small, achievable goals.”

Zoellner says people have already told the team that the program has helped them drink fewer sugary drinks. The research team plans to measure results at 6 and 18 months after the program.

Tags: cancer, research

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