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Big Gulp No More

With 63 per cent of Americans overweight or obese, something needs to be done to curb the weight crisis. If you listen to NY’s mayor, a ban on super-sized sweetened beverages may be the answer, however many American’s are not happy with this “nannying” stance. So, is banning super-sized sweetened beverages really the answer to fighting the battle of the bulge?

Last week, Mayor of NY Michael Bloomberg announced that he wanted to put a ban on super-sized sweetened drinks (think energy drinks, iced teas and soft drinks) in movie theatres, stadiums, arenas, restaurants and mobile food vans. This proposed restriction created much criticism among New Yorkers, who like many Americans, live by the culture that bigger is better (especially if it comes with value for money). It’s not the first time that New Yorkers have been warned against sugar sweetened beverages with NY Health launching the Are you Pouring On the Pounds? campaign in 2009. Here’s a one of the campaign ads that were released along with the launch.

Source: Tri-City Herald

Bloomberg’s proposed ban would take effect from as early as next March and would prohibit the sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 500ml, however consumers would not be prohibited from getting refills or multiple servings. While the ban would apply to soft drinks, energy drinks and iced teas, diet soft drinks, fruit juice, dairy drinks and alcoholic beverages would be spared and beverages sold in supermarkets and convenience stores would also be exempt from the ban.

With obesity rates skyrocketing, Bloomberg believes something needs to be done to combat the epidemic and it’s not the first aggressive campaign against obesity that Bloomberg has headed. He has also said no to trans fats being used in restaurant food and forced chain restaurants to display calorie counts on the menu. Smoking bans in city bars, restaurants, parks and beaches have also been implemented by Bloomberg.

The latest public health initiative however, has been met with much criticism  with Americans (who cherish freedom) claiming the move is “dictatorship”, while some health professionals believe educating consumers is the better option. Of course soft drink company Coca-Cola was also not a fan, releasing the following statement: “New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase. We hope New Yorkers loudly voice their disapproval about this arbitrary mandate.” But, when it comes to food choice, maybe less is best for all of us.

What does the research say?

In 2006, a review of 30 studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a greater consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with weight gain and obesity thanks to their high added sugar content, low satiety (inability to satisfy) and the fact that we don’t compensate for the extra liquid kilojoules we take in when we drink them. Sweetened beverages have also been linked to diabetes and tooth decay. Then if you consider portion sizes, there’s no misinterpreting the data that shows the more food or drink put in front of us the more we consume. Reduce the size of the glass, bowl or plate and we will eat or drink less.

Source: CDC

Cutting down the size of sweetened beverages isn’t necessarily eliminating American’s right to choose. In the 1950s, McDonalds offered only one size of soft drink – just 200ml – and there has never been any rule stopping people from ordering more than one beverage. It’s when the amount of choice grew (i.e a large range of portion sizes to choose from) that we started to see the expansion of waistlines. Therefore, simply changing our eating environment (one option being to reduce the portion sizes on offer) could have a profound effect on the amount we consume. Just ask US researcher Brian Wansink who has completed numerous studies on eating behaviour (check out his book Mindless Eating).

Despite the vast amount of research that Wansink has done on the environmental influences affecting our eating habits however, there is research lacking on the best interventions to help fight the bulge. In particular, there is no research to suggest restricting the serving sizes of sweetened beverages will help in the fight against the obesity epidemic. Even Wansink thinks the banning of super-sized sweetened beverages may be too “confrontational” and an “epic failure”.

Is the ban worth it?

Personally, I think the ban on super-sized sweetened beverages is a great initiative. While it may not be the answer to the obesity epidemic, it is removing ridiculous portion sizes that promote gluttony. The proposed ban doesn’t eliminate choice – we can still choose to drink a sweetened beverage and we still get to decide how much they consume – but is does promote a reduction in the number of calories consumed. It will make us think twice before overindulging, as we need to consider whether purchasing a second beverage is really worth the money (and extra calories). While the proposed restriction on the size of sweetened beverages may not provide us with the education we need to proactively change our own eating habits, it is creating change in our obesogenic environment. While it’s definitely not the only health initiative that needs to be implemented in the fight against obesity, it is one of many steps that can help pave the way for more positive changes in the future. Each small change we make towards living a healthier lifestyle (whether it is eating more wholesome, minimally processed food, moving more or reducing stress levels) ca have a big impact on fighting the obesity epidemic, particularly when we combine them together.

What do you think of the proposed ban on super-sized sweetened beverages in NY?

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