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A UBC study links consumption of sugary drinks to obesity and recommends dramatic reductions in sugar intake.Nathan Rochford/The Globe and Mail

A University of British Columbia study says students who consume sugar-sweetened beverages are more likely to be obese – though its lead author says the situation has improved in this province in recent years due to a crackdown on junk-food availability at schools.

The study, published Wednesday in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, looked at more than 11,000 B.C. students from Grades 7 to 12. The data, taken from more than 170 schools, were collected in 2007-08. The study found the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages impacted students' odds of being obese – it said the availability of unhealthy foods in general was linked to higher consumption of those foods.

Louise Mâsse, the study's lead author, said the results are further proof that schools play an important role in shaping the dietary habits of youths. But Ms. Mâsse, of UBC's school of population and public health, noted this province has taken significant steps to address the issue of sugar-sweetened beverages in the years since the data was collected.

"The province has been very pro-active in changing the school environment. We have assessed that it's been changed. We are definitely on the right path. Certainly, we need to make sure that we continue along this path," she said in an interview.

Sugar consumption has, of late, made headlines far beyond B.C.'s borders. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization unveiled new draft guidelines that called for sugar consumption to be reduced to just 5 per cent of calories.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation last month said it would unveil new sugar consumption guidelines, and it urged Ottawa to set a firm limit on how much sugar Canadians could safely consume in one day.

Ms. Mâsse said she plans to publish more recent data on B.C. schools in the near future, though she could not say exactly when. She said even with the policies the B.C. government has put in place, unhealthy food and beverages sometimes show up in schools.

"We know that they're still struggling sometimes with implementation," she said. "One of the things we hear is that it's still the responsibility of parents."

A Ministry of Education spokesperson said the study is not an accurate reflection of food and beverage options in B.C. schools today, because of the time that has passed since the data was collected. He said the province's guidelines for food and beverage sales in schools were enacted in September, 2008, and were most recently updated last year. The guidelines are designed to eliminate the sale of unhealthy beverages and foods.

Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board, described the provincial rules as stringent. She said Vancouver schools, for instance, do not offer soda drinks.

However, Ms. Bacchus said there are rare instances in which a school is not in compliance. "What we find happens from time to time is someone brings in a vending machine and they're not always ones the school board is aware of," she said in an interview.

The study noted Canada, unlike the United States, does not have a national breakfast or school lunch program that is subsidized by the federal government.

The study, which relied on students to fill in a survey, found students from schools in suburban and rural settings were more likely to be overweight than students in urban settings. It also found girls had lower odds of being obese than boys.

With a report from Kelly Grant