New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on soft drinks bigger than 16 ounces found more solid scientific footing last week, thanks to number of newly published clinical studies linking sugar-sweetened drinks to thicker waistlines.
The plan to can too-large soft drinks (passed by the city’s Board of Health in September) cracks down on the sale of super-sized sodas, sports and energy drinks, sweetened teas, coffees and fruit drinks containing less than 70 percent juice.
But will the move ultimately make for a healthier city? Or will it just disgruntle thirsty Americans? For some insight, we spoke to pediatric cardiologist Rae Ellen Kavey. Daily, she and her team help obese kids make the lifestyle changes needed to wrangle run-away blood pressure, unhealthy lipid levels, and more.
Scripts: The city’s ban demonizes soft drinks bigger than 16 ounces. Why are we quick to point a finger at soda?
Kavey: For starters, because there’s a huge amount of sugar in it. 16-ounce soft drinks can pack more than 50 grams – that’s about 13 cubes, if you’ve ever tossed one or two in a cup of tea. Somehow, because we’re drinking them, the calories tend to be under-appreciated. To make matters worse, they’re “empty” – they offer no nutritional merit to offset all that sugar.
What’s more, there’s a considerable amount of evidence – including three new articles out just last week in the New England Journal of Medicine – suggesting that by limiting sugary drinks, we can help individuals lose weight (or avoid becoming obese in the first place). And in clinical practice, among families we work with, we’ve absolutely witnessed this firsthand. Limiting your primary beverages to fat-free milk, water, and – if you must – diet sodas, is a powerful starting point.
Scripts: Do you think the ban, if left in place, will make New Yorkers healthier?
Kavey: It just might. Whether or not it’s within the mayor’s purview to be making such decisions is certainly up for debate – but there is science behind this kind of approach. We have research showing that limiting access (say, removing soda vending machines from schools) can be an effective way of shaping healthier habits. It doesn’t have to be a perfect roadblock to work. It just has to deter folks.
In that sense, as a physician, I’m thrilled that the ban – and the flood of news surrounding it – is creating such a powerful educational moment. It’s opening our eyes to soda’s excessive sugar content. It’s spurring conversations around the issue of portion size. But it can’t stop there.
Scripts: What more needs to happen?
Take sports drinks. High school athletes and weekend warriors have no need for electrolyte-charged drinks in their duffel bags. A water bottle is more than sufficient, unless you’re a high-performance athlete training several hours a day. And fruit juice? Many people feel almost virtuous sipping a glass of orange juice with breakfast, or giving their kids “100 percent” juice. But at the end of the day, juice is essentially just sugar-water too. It’s a way to consume far more sugar than you would if you enjoyed fruit in its natural state. Case in point, a cup of orange juice packs the calories of three to four medium oranges. Can you imagine consuming that many in one sitting? If you want to have your fruit, eat it in its whole form, the way it comes on the vine, the bush, or the tree. You’ll get some satiating fiber, that way.
Dr. Kavey was a member of both the NIH Obesity Task Force and the American Heart Association’s Pediatric Obesity Working Group, and is past Chair of the AHA’s Committee on Atherosclerosis, Hypertension and Obesity in Childhood. She divides her time between clinical pursuits, mainly in preventive cardiology and the Children’s Heart Center’s exercise lab, and expanding the division’s clinical research program.
To learn more about the Children’s Heart Center at URMC’s Golisano Children’s Hospital, click here.