To Combat Obesity, America Declares War On Soda

It’s no secret that America is obese.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35.7% of adults and 17% of children in this country fall into that category.  As a nation, we are struggling to come to terms with the problem.  At one end of the spectrum, clothing manufacturers are trying to make us feel good about ourselves by vanity sizing our clothes to make us believe that we really are a size 4.  At the other end, government bodies are imposing rules limiting what the food industry can allow us to put in our bodies.  The latest target in that vein?  Sugary drinks.

Link to Obesity

According to ABC, the average American drinks about 45 gallons’ worth of soft drinks each year.  An eight-ounce can of soda contains the equivalent of six sugar cubes,  but McDonald’s, for example, sells soda in 16, 21, and 32 ounce sizes.  Various studies have linked sugar in soda and fruit drinks to obesity, demonstrating that children who drink sugary drinks are more likely to gain weight than children who drink non-sugary drinks, and that consumption of sugary beverages may actually increase a person’s genetic predisposition to gain weight. So just switch to diet beverages, right?

Not so fast. Other studies have suggested that drinking diet beverages may cause people to crave more sweet items, contributing to weight gain; on the flip side, it’s possible that people with weight problems are choosing to drink diet beverages, a phenomenon one researcher refers to as the “Big Mac and Diet Coke mentality.”  In fact, other studies have demonstrated that drinking diet beverages staves off weight gain.  But they don’t take into consideration the recent study reported by the National Institutes of Health linking diet drinks to depression.  In that study, participants who drank four or more cans of aspartame-sweetened beverages a day were 31 percent more likely to report depression in the future than those who did not drink sweet beverages; those who drank sugar-sweetened beverages were still 22 percent more likely than those who did not to report depression.  The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it serves to demonstrate the growing interest in the health risks of sweet-flavored drinks.

NYC’s Beverage Ban

So what’s a nation to do?  The most publicized and controversial tactic is probably New York City’s beverage ban, a city ordinance that will prohibit the sale of sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, street carts, entertainment venues, and sports venues.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of healthy living, is a huge proponent of the law, which he believes will improve the lives of the 58% of New Yorkers who are obese.  Not everyone is happy with the ordinance, however, which will go into effect on March 12th.  Many deplore the creation of a “nanny state,” in which the government regulates our daily activities, but Bloomberg’s team points out that measures requiring restaurants to post calories counts on their menus and eliminating trans fats have been successful.

The American Beverage Association is leading the fight to upend the law.  In September, numerous industry representatives, restaurants, and other businesses filed suit, alleging that the New York City Board of Health did not have the authority to pass the law.  The case is still ongoing.  The city has stated that it will not initially fine businesses that do not comply with the law.  Instead, it will send warning notices for a period of three months, after which it will impose penalties.

Signs of the Times

The New York City ban is just part of the bigger picture.  The News Releases & Statements portion of the American Beverage Association’s website is filled with articles detailing the “industry response” to various studies attacking the detrimental health effects of sugary beverages.  A true sign of the times is the national involvement of an iconic American corporation.  Coca-Cola, as American as apple pie, is on the defensive–or the offensive, depending on how you look at it.  Coke is launching an ad campaign touting its 180 “low- and no-calorie choices,” and encouraging consumers to get active to burn off calories after enjoying regular Coke.

Where does that leave us?  No rational person can doubt that an obesity problem exists.  No one doubts that sedentary lifestyles and overeating are contributing to the epidemic.  But no one can agree on what to do about it.  Is it the government’s place to step in and regulate our food intake, especially if we’re not willing to do it ourselves?  What do you think?