Fluid intake and diet
This page is about water and diet in schools. For more about health effects, visit the main Water, toilets and health page.
What are the benefits of drinking water?
Drinking enough water throughout the day can:
- Protect health
- Contribute to wellbeing
- Boost vitality
- Help prevent a range of bladder and bowel problems
Bladder and bowel problems caused or worsened by dehydration include:
- Increased risk of urinary tract infections
- Overactive bladder
- Daytime wetting
Drinking water instead of soft drinks helps prevent tooth decay and obesity. Fizzy drinks and drinks with caffeine should be limited. These can cause some children to produce too much urine.
When children do not drink enough, they become dehydrated. Even mild dehydration can effect health and wellbeing. It can also have an adverse effect on mental performance and the ability to learn. Well-hydrated pupils are not distracted by the effects of dehydration such as thirst, tiredness and irritability, and so can concentrate better.
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How much should children drink?
Children need to drink proportionately more than adults. They also need to drink more frequently. The amount a child needs to drink is variable and depends on:
- Body size
- The weather
- Activity levels
- What food you eat (e.g. fruit and vegetables are high in water)
- What clothes you wear (e.g. man-made fibres increase sweating)
The average daily drinking water requirement for children is 1.5 – 2 litres. That’s 6 – 8 glasses, where a glass contains 250 ml.
The most recently published guidelines (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Washington DC, 2004) are that teenage boys aged 14 and over require at least 2.6 litres. That’s about 11 250ml glasses.
At school pupils should drink at least half their daily requirement, spread regularly throughout the school day. In warm weather and/or when exercising (including playing) children and young people will need to drink a lot more.
Many pupils, particularly young children, do not recognise thirst; therefore, encouraging them to drink is advisable. Water is the healthiest option for pupils to drink between meals and throughout the day, as it has none of the health problems of drinks containing sugar, caffeine and additives. Fizzy drinks, juice or squash should ideally be restricted to meals, to lessen the harm of sugar and acids to teeth. For some children, these drinks can make them need to urinate more.
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What is the drinking water situation in schools?
The information below comes from ERIC’s own surveys into water in schools. Read more about these surveys.
In the majority of primary schools, drinking water in lessons and throughout the school day is now commonplace. Consumption of water has increased. This is a huge improvement since the start of the Water is Cool in School campaign in 2000.
In secondary schools the improvements are less common and water is often a less attractive option than other drinks. There is still widespread poor practice (e.g. over-reliance on traditional water fountains and too many drinking outlets sited in toilet areas). Research shows the amount of drinking water continues to be below the recommended levels for good health and wellbeing among most pupils.
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Why don’t children drink enough water in school?
There are many reasons why pupils may not drink enough water at school.
- Poor water facilities in school:
Children are often not allowed to bring drinks into school. If they are, the drinks frequently have high sugar content.
- Water outlets are frequently located in or close to toilets – unhygienic and off-putting
- Traditional fountains make it difficult for pupils to get enough to drink
- Water may be unpalatable (tepid or tastes unpleasant)
- There may not be enough drinking facilities for the numbers of pupils in the school
- Water facilities may be inconveniently located
- Drinking opportunities may be limited to breaks or lunch times
- Schools may not allow water bottles in the classroom and pupils may not always be allowed to leave the room to get a drink
Adults may be unaware of the potential effects of dehydration on health and learning. Schools may be unaware of the need to drink adequate water throughout the day.
Children may be unaware of the need to drink water – they would rather play and are not good at recognising thirst.
The only drinks available may need to be bought.
Supplying good, plentiful drinking water is a low priority for school budgets.
The provision of modern and hygienic water outlets in schools – ideally in each classroom – is not included in designs for new schools.
As a result, children drink less than they need to. Some do not drink at all during the school day.
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What’s the law on providing drinking water for pupils in schools?
Open a factsheet on the law on drinking water for pupils.
How can schools improve water intake in school?
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This is easy – allow water bottles on the desks. Each pupil brings in his/her own washed and labelled plastic bottle (or the school provides the bottles). Pupils are allowed to fill the bottles up during the day. The bottles should be filled from water coolers plumbed into the mains water supply (these are known as point-of-use or POU coolers) or from modern water fountains with a built-in cooling system and a swan neck dispenser.
Bottles on desks proved popular in the Water is Cool in School campaign as schools found that it was a cheap and effective way to encourage pupils to drink regularly throughout the day. When carefully planned and managed, involving pupils from the outset, any initial silliness or disruption soon vanished. Most pupils appreciated the concern for their welfare and rose to the responsibility.
A healthy diet
One of the main causes of constipation is lack of fibre (also known as roughage). Many school dinners do not provide pupils with enough fibre. A number of pupils lack adequate fibre at home. In addition, some schools provide vending machines stocked with unhealthy snacks low in fibre. Filling up on junk food such as crisps and chocolate means pupils will be less hungry for healthy foods high in fibre such as fruit and vegetables.
High fibre foods can help prevent constipation.
Fibre is found in plant food: wholegrain cereals, fruit and vegetables. It is not digested completely. As fibre travels through the bowel, it soaks up water and makes stools softer.
There are 2 types of fibre:
- Insoluble – found mainly in wheat products, e.g. wholemeal bread, bran cereals
- Soluble – found in fruit, vegetables and pulses, e.g. kidney beans, lentils and baked beans
The most effective way of increasing fibre is to have a mixture of soluble and insoluble.
High fibre foods:
- Wholegrain, wholemeal or granary bread
- High-fibre white bread (not as much fibre as wholemeal but more than ordinary white bread)
- Wholegrain cereals like bran flakes, bran cereal, breakfast biscuits, muesli and porridge
- Wholemeal pasta
- Brown rice
- Wholemeal scones, muffins and crumpets
- Wholewheat crackers
- Rye crispbreads
- Cereal/muesli bars
- Digestive/bran biscuits
- Fig rolls
- Lentil soup
- Fruit (with skins where appropriate)
- Vegetables (with skins where appropriate)
- Pulses, lentils and beans
- Nuts (not recommended for under-5s)
The fibre content of the diet should be increased slowly, to prevent stomach cramps. Fibre-rich foods should be eaten throughout the day – it’s better than having a high-fibre breakfast then an unhealthy lunch and tea! Make sure children drink plenty of fluid throughout the day and with their meals, as the fibre in stools (poo) will only plump up and soften if adequate water is drunk. (see How much should children drink? for more on this).
If children and young people have too much fibre, they can feel full before they’ve eaten enough calories and nutrients (like vitamins and minerals). A few children may have trouble with fibre and find it causes loose stools. This will usually be apparent at a very early age – before they start school.
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