Q&A

Monica L. Wang


BU researcher named one of 2018’s Ten Outstanding Young Leaders by Boston Chamber of Commerce

Monica L. Wang

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Monica L. Wang, an assistant professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, is passionate about studying how consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages affects the health of children and families. She works to develop customized programs and policies that encourage healthy eating and physical activities among underserved communities. Wang is an advisor to the Massachusetts legislative task force that aims to reduce sugary drink consumption and promote water consumption.

BU Research: At what age for you did science become interesting? Was it a person or a class that sparked your early interest?

Wang: In my high school biology and chemistry classes, I really liked the method of coming up with a question and designing an experiment to find the answer. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to take courses in community health and epidemiology, which sparked my interest in the science of improving health at the community and population level. I knew then that a career in public health was for me.

For young researchers today, what advice would you offer that you’ve learned?

Seek out partnerships and build collaborations with people outside of your field—whether it’s other fields of science, or other sectors (e.g., policy, industry, education, media, community). Some of the best ideas and projects originate when people with different expertise, skill sets, and perspectives come together. I have grown (and continue to grow) intellectually and personally by connecting with people who think differently than I do.

How did sugary drinks in particular become an issue you really wanted to investigate more?

Many of the families and communities I met with weren’t sure where to start in how to prevent or treat childhood obesity. There are so many messages around diet, physical activity, screen time, sleep, etc., that it can be overwhelming to figure out which one(s) to focus on. We want to set families up for success with small changes to start, and in a way that acknowledges the substantial environmental and economic barriers that many families face (e.g. limited access to grocery stores and parks, easy access to fast foods, lack of time and financial security).

That’s where sugary drinks come in—they are a reasonable beverage group to limit because they offer little to no nutrients (empty calories) and are the largest source of added sugar to children’s diets. In terms of behavior change, cutting back on sugary drinks gives the most bang for your buck in energy savings (drinking just one less 20-ounce bottle of soda saves about 240 calories) without substantially inconveniencing or costing families in terms of time or money. The challenge was how to motivate children and families to be on board with this behavior change (and keep it going), which is the focus of much of my work.

Do you have a sweet tooth of your own? How do you deal with it, if you do?

Yes! I’m not a fan of sugary drinks but I like dessert (chocolate and cheesecake are favorites). I manage with two main guidelines. The first is I try to limit added sugar during the week (e.g., opting for raw nuts, plain yogurt, and black coffee, using fruit instead of honey in my oatmeal, making simple sauces or dressings without sugar, limiting processed foods and takeout). Cutting back on added sugar in my main meals has allowed me to taste the actual food better, so when I do have the occasional dessert (the second guideline), it tastes a lot sweeter. On weekdays I might end my day with a piece of dark chocolate (this kind has less added sugar than milk or white), and on weekends I have a reasonable serving of dessert and enjoy it! If I have the time and energy, I’ll experiment with dessert recipes and use less sugar than the recipe originally called for (my kids and husband are the taste-testers).

I am sure you must have had sodas and sugary drinks as a child, like all of us. What advice would you give to parents today who struggle with this issue of avoiding these drinks for their children?

As a parent, I can relate to this struggle! We don’t have sugary drinks in our home, but our children know that they can ask for juice when they go to their grandma’s house. While impossible for children to avoid sugary drinks completely, our research shows that availability of sugary drinks at home is the strongest predictor of heavy sugary drink consumption, even though kids are exposed to sugary drinks in other settings, like school or the neighborhood. This means that parents can play a huge role in their children’s diet by making small changes in the home food environment.

My advice is for parents to limit availability of sugary drinks at home, such as keeping them out of sight, purchasing less sugary drinks, and purchasing healthier alternatives (e.g., sparkling water, plain milk). If kids have a choice between drinking water, plain milk, or nothing at all, they will likely drink the water or plain milk. If they have a choice between a sugary drink, plain milk, or water, the sugary drink will win. If the only options at home are nonsugary drinks, that option has a strong chance of eventually becoming the default and the norm.

Is there one drink in particular that if you could just see it disappear would really make a difference? When you see a child drinking it, you sort of cringe?

Sodas, malted, or nectar-type drinks tend to have the highest amount of added sugar per ounce. A 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew packs a whopping 77 grams of sugar, more than three times what the American Heart Association recommends for daily added sugar intake for children ages two and up. The issue is that excessive sugary drink consumption doesn’t come from one single category—the beverage industry has created a lot of choices, so even if we remove one type, there are plenty of other options to choose from. But, we can also create a demand for healthier options that the food and beverage industry can—and is starting to—respond to.

By Doug Most

 

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