Friday, June 1, 2012

Is this really a "sweet" solution?

First thing yesterday morning, I saw this link pop up in my Facebook news feed. I recommend reading the article, but essentially, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is moving to ban the sale of sweetened drinks in any size larger than 16 ounces. He believes this will help to slow the obesity epidemic that is sweeping our nation, basing this conclusion on data from the city's health commissioner linking higher rates of obesity to neighborhoods where more soft drinks are consumed. The author of the article emphasizes that Mayor Bloomberg has tried twice to restrict the sale of soft drinks, failing once in the State Legislature and once with the FDA. It's clear he's convinced that New Yorkers stand to gain, though not in the traditional sense, from consuming fewer sweetened drinks.
This topic is near and dear to my heart because I spent a term researching the same issue for my Information Gathering (more commonly known as Info Hell) journalism class at the University of Oregon. To digress for a moment, the class requires students to annotate 35 sources on both sides of a divisive issue and then use these sources to write a 30-page paper. Each annotation went into great detail and had to be at least 2 pages, picking apart the source and examining its rationale and bias. For the math whizzes out there, yes, that is a 100-page paper! Mine was about soda machines in schools. I've been fascinated by child nutrition and child obesity ever since.
It's always interesting to hear people argue that junk food is not the cause of obesity. When I first starting researching who would be in favor of soda machines in schools, I found to my surprise that it was school organizations (sports teams, for example) who depended on revenue from the machines. Ironic, indeed, considering that coaches normally encourage healthy eating for their players, including drinking water as opposed to soda. Beverage companies, of course, are also on board with their product, denying that they are to blame for the rampant obesity in America and seeing no reason why their drinks should not be available in schools.
Let's join the naysayers for a moment and consider the issue at hand. There's no denying it, Americans have a weight problem. We, as a nation, need to get healthy. How exactly to accomplish this is a matter for debate, mainly because there are a lot of causes that need to be addressed. Certainly, it's possible to become overweight solely by taking in too many calories. Sugary drinks, such as soda, "juice" drinks, sweetened tea, fancy coffees, sports drinks, and even fruit juice, offer an easy way to do this without even noticing. In fact, studies have been done showing that people who consumed caloric beverages with their meals did not reduce their food intake to account for the extra calories. They ate the same amount as subjects who drank water. I even read one for my paper that had done the same experiment with preschoolers, finding the same results.
This underscores an important point, though: extra calories generally equal extra weight only if the total calories are more than the body requires. There are exceptions, but I don't think we can completely blame the consumption of such drinks for our expanding waistlines. For one thing, these drinks aren't exactly new. They have undergone some major recipe changes in the last few decades with the addition of high-fructose corn syrup, but since I majored in journalism, not chemistry, I'll leave that one for the scientists.
For our purposes, we'll consider the "original" version of most mainstream soft drinks. Even with just sugar as a sweetener, we're not talking about a healthy beverage. It's sugar, water, flavoring, and bubbles. In the past, however, a bottle of soda pop was a special treat. It wouldn't have been consumed daily, perhaps not even weekly. It certainly wouldn't have replaced healthier beverages such as milk or water at a meal. And - most importantly of all, in my opinion - it came in a 12-ounce bottle or glass at a soda fountain. Overconsumption probably happened anyway, but it certainly wasn't as easy. The obesity level was undoubtably lower, but that could simply be the result of a more active society in previous decades.
This brings us back to Mayor Bloomberg and his campaign against giant sweetened drinks. Will shrinking serving sizes really help New York slim down? It's hard to say. The factors that have led to the current obesity issues are much more complex than that. As a nation, we eat too much, drink too much, consume far too many calories, and don't get enough exercise. Fresh fruit and vegetables aren't easily accessible, especially in inner-city neighborhoods. Cheap corn and soy have led to a overabundance of high-calorie, low-nutrient "foods" that take the place of more nutritious edibles. Limiting soda and other sweetened drinks could help, but it's only one answer to a multifaceted question. Until we can find a few more answers and implement solutions that use these answers, sadly, we won't be any closer to ending the obesity epidemic.


  1. Great post. I really think that the fact that they're not including diet pops is silly too. Diet pops have all those harmful chemicals in them (and believe me, I used to drink them all the time!) Once I realized that drinking diet pop wasn't helping me lose weight, I started drinking only water and milk. I don't know if cutting out those drinks will actually help (especially because people can just buy multiple drinks, or get a refill..) I wish that they would make healthy foods cheaper. Eating healthy costs more!

    1. Thanks!! It'd be great if food was more realistically priced! Eating healthy shouldn't be so much more expensive. :( There's a ton of food documentaries on Netflix that I watched when I was on bed rest, and a lot of them talk about how junk food is subsidized and so it's much cheaper than healthier options. The cost to the environment isn't factored in, either. I quit drinking artificially sweetened anything when I got pregnant and now it tastes sickeningly sweet. Sparkling water is my favorite now!

  2. I'm with you guys I wish healthy food was cheaper. But man it's sooo expensive! My favorite part about that article is that milkshakes aren't included. Milkshakes aren't very good for you's just crazy. I think no matter what they do it's all about people choosing to eat right, be healthy, the government can't help them make those decisions as much as they try.

  3. I was actually wondering while I was writing the post if cocktails were included, like the really giant margaritas at Chili's? Milkshakes and malts would make sense too. Heck, even chocolate milk could meet the criteria! It's unfortunate that we can't get laws passed ensuring proper labeling of foods and evening out food costs so healthy food doesn't cost so much more. That would really make a big difference in obesity rates, I think.