Eat Well to Be Well: Slow the flow on sugary drinks

If you regularly keep up with national news, you most likely heard that a New York State appeals court upheld a lower court decision blocking New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial ban on sugary drinks over 16 ounces. Granted, this has nothing to do with any such proposal in Kansas, thank goodness, but it could potentially lead to other proposed bans on foods in other parts of the country. Why do I say “thank goodness?” Even as a registered dietitian, I don’t want the government determining what foods we can and cannot eat, or in what amounts we can consume them.

Some people draw an analogy between taxing sugary drinks and taxing cigarettes. The smoking rate has dropped substantially for the betterment of us all, largely due to those taxes and restrictive bans. However, with cigarettes, you do not need them in order to live, they can directly harm others through second-hand smoke and there are no health redeeming qualities to them. Food is different. Like cigarettes, eating is a personal choice. But we have to eat food to keep alive and to keep us healthy.

Mayor Bloomberg’s reason for banning large amounts of sugary drinks is that he believes drinking sugary beverages is a main cause of obesity. Are sugary drinks the main culprit leading to obesity? That’s debatable. For some obese people, it may be one of the main reasons for their excess weight. Notice I say “one of the main reasons.” I believe there are many contributing factors that lead to putting on the pounds. Overeating just about any food can lead to weight gain. What food or beverage will they pick on next? Red meat, cookies, donuts? To single out one specific food or beverage, to regulate or control how much we can consume of it, is taking away personal freedom in an area we should have complete say on.

Do I think it’s healthy to drink large quantities of sugary drinks? No! Do most Americans need to make better choices when it comes to what beverages they choose? Yes! Educating yourself on appropriate servings and the effects consuming too much can have on your body is important.

For starters, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled in the last 10 years. The percent of adults age 20 years and older who are overweight or obese is 69.2 percent (2009-2010). Health conditions related to obesity include heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion and the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight. Obesity is a costly condition – not only monetarily, but also physically and emotionally.

Limiting consumption of sweetened beverages is an important step in preventing obesity. Sweetened beverages include not just soft drinks, but also fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and sweetened teas and coffees. The intake of sweetened beverages has tripled as a percentage of calories in the U. S. since 1990. The incidence of obesity has risen along with our increase of sugary beverages. The average number of teaspoons of sugar in a 12-ounce can of soda is nine to 10, and if you’re drinking a 20-ounce soda, it contains 17 teaspoons of sugar. Would you sit down and eat that many teaspoons of sugar by itself? The average 12-ounce soft drink contains about 150 calories. Drinking just one can a day adds an extra 54,750 calories a year or an extra 15-pound weight gain.

Not only does drinking sugary beverages contribute to an increase in pounds but also poses a threat to tooth and bone health. The high sugar content leads to tooth decay, and the high amounts of phosphorus remove calcium from bones which can lead to osteoporosis.

Here are some steps you can take to reduce and limit your intake of sugary beverages. Reducing these drinks is beneficial to your overall health and can lessen the likelihood of developing chronic health conditions.

  • When thirsty, choose water. Offer children water when thirsty so they get used to the taste of it. If you don’t like the taste of plain water, add slices of lemons, limes, cucumber or watermelon to add some flavor.
  • Drink fat-free or low-fat milk. This will give you calcium and vitamin D along with other important vitamins and minerals.
  • Drink 100 percent fruit juices without added sugar (limit yourself to no more than 1 cup a day.)
  • Stop buying sugary drinks. Out of sight, out of mind works wonders! Craving a sweetened beverage? Divert yourself by reading, exercising or whatever else will keep your mind off of it.
  • If you have a major addiction to drinking sugary beverages, cut down gradually over time. Have a plan on reducing the amount slowly each day.
  • Only 10% of our calories should come from sugar. This equals 13.3 teaspoons of sugar per day (based on 2,000 calories per day). The current average in the U.S. is 42.5 teaspoons of sugar per day!

Eating is one of life’s main pleasures and sugar has its place in our food system by contributing to the taste and appeal of food. An occasional sweetened beverage is okay but overindulging is not. When it comes to eating, moderation is the key and sugar is no different. Like the saying in a famous song goes “just a teaspoon of sugar makes the medicine go down.” A little goes a long way but too much causes problems.

Media attention is helpful in creating awareness of the need to reduce the serving sizes of sugary beverages. If everyone simply practices more self-regulation and personal responsibility in their eating habits, we can rely more on educating instead of legislating what we put in our mouths.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches a course called Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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