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Soda Bans Appear to Find Their Target
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "soda ban" was overturned by a New York supreme court judge in March, he vowed to appeal. That appeal is currently being deliberated by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division.
The "ban" is not actually a ban, but a set of rules that would prevent movie theaters, stadiums and restaurants in the city's five boroughs from selling sugary drinks in servings larger than 16 ounces and is an attempt to reduce the calories soda drinkers consume. The New York City Department of Health sees the legislation as a way to help people avoid empty calories and curb the health and healthcare costs of obesity and diabetes.
Others see the law as overreaching — regulating what you can and can't eat or buy. In addition, some believe the rules place an unfair financial burden on low-income people. The drawback, say critics, is that restricting the cup size of sodas penalizes the poor rather than targeting the overweight and obese population it actually seeks to influence.
On at least this point, those opposed to the law may be mistaken. New research suggests that the ban on supersize sodas actually seems to do what it is designed to do. Overweight people would be expressly helped by the ban, which, pardon the pun, adds some weight to the policy under appeal after being shot down by the New York Supreme Court.
A Curb on Cup Size Really May Help
Researchers looked at the dietary records of over 19,000 people across the country. For each person, they gathered information about how many sugar-sweetened beverages he or she tended to consume, and the kinds of places at which they usually bought sodas (fast food restaurant, sports stadiums, and so on). Then they looked at how soda consumption connected with other variables, like income level and body weight.
What they found may make even those opposed to the ban (except perhaps theater owners and those working for corporations manufacturing sugar-sweetened beverages) reconsider.
Over 60% of US citizens consume sugary drinks (of any size) every day. The big news is that only about 7.5% of these soda-lovers actually buy sugary drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces. There was no difference in the number of large-size sugary drinks consumed by people of lower incomes — defined as those who were eligible for the SNAP (food stamp) program — and those with higher incomes.
But weight does predict who buys the big cups of soda: 8.2% of people who were overweight bought large-sized sugary drinks every day, compared to 6.8% who were of normal weight. For teenagers the numbers were a bit higher: about 13.6% who were overweight bought daily large-size sugary drinks, compared to 12.6% of normal weight teenagers.
Lower income individuals may still drink more of the beverages, but they may do it at home and so would not be especially affected by the ban which restricts cup size in movie theaters and restaurants. “Buying a large soda and drinking it at home costs less, ” study author Y. Claire Wang said in a statement. Large bottles of soda would still be easily available in grocery stores under the law.
The authors are encouraged by the results, which they say generally support the idea of a ban. In fact, if people cut back to 16-ounce sugary drinks rather than buying two 16-ounce cups (which they estimate about 80% of people would do), they’d save about 63 calories per day. This is remarkably close to the 64 calories per day reduction the authors’ earlier studies had was needed to reach the government’s Healthy People 2020 goal.
“Changing social norms is difficult, ” said Wang, “but as portion sizes have grown, it's useful to establish a new standard. ” She hopes that the soda ban will have a spillover effect, influencing the choices that people make in the grocery store and in their own homes.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the Supreme Court appeal, for which oral arguments are being made right now. In the meantime, it’s always best to cut down on sugar as you can, and if you have to have a little sweets fix, eat a little dark chocolate or some fruit, rather than drinking your sugar.
The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
June 18, 2013