The “Big Gulp.” Free Refills. 20-ounce single servings. 2 liters for 99 cents. Soda vending machines just about everywhere. During the past 40 years or so we’ve opened the spigot of sugary drinks, roughly doubling our consumption. It shows in our bulging waistlines and widening bottoms, but equally so in the health care and economic sectors, where obesity is generating huge, unsustainable costs and reducing workplace productivity. The fattening of America—and its associated diseases—is sickening our children and threatens to cut their life expectancy to less than that of their parents.
Many factors contribute to our obesity epidemic, and a comprehensive effort to overcome it is absolutely necessary. But there’s more than enough reason to single out sugary drinks as a place to start. We need to drink much less soda, fruit-flavored drinks, energy and sports drinks, sweetened teas and coffees, and powdered beverages. They’re too cheap and readily available, heavily marketed to children, sold and consumed in high-calorie “single servings” of gargantuan proportions, and, for the most part, devoid of any nutritional value.
Of all calories in the American diet, those from sugary drinks are among the most worthless and most expendable. Those beverages comprise the single largest source of calories in the American diet and contribute about half of all calories from added sugars. They account for upwards of 15 percent of calories consumed by some teenagers. Since the mid 1990s, Americans have been consuming more sugary drinks than milk.
Partly because beverages do not satiate as well as solid foods, sugary-drink consumption leads to higher calorie intake and may displace more nutritious foods in the diet. Study after study documents that consumption of sugary drinks increases the risks of overweight and obesity, which promote diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other devastating and costly health problems. And it also promotes tooth decay. Those sour consequences need our desperate attention.
How long can we prosper as a society when about two thirds of adults and about a third of children and teenagers are overweight or obese? The medical costs alone top $150 billion per year and continue to rise; half of that is paid by taxpayers through Medicaid and Medicare. If we don’t start cutting back, our health and life expectancy will decline, our health-care system will go belly up, and our work force will become less productive. As it is, military recruiters have to turn away many volunteers because they are too fat. If you have doubts that it’s time to act, just consider that in 2010, Colorado qualified as the leanest state in the country, with “only” 19.8 percent of its population obese. That same proportion of the population would have made it the fattest in 1995.
To put the soda genie back in the bottle, more than 100 organizations and several big-city health departments have launched the “Life’s Sweeter with Fewer Sugary Drinks Challenge,” which seeks to cut average consumption of sugary drinks by at least half, down to the equivalent of about three 12-ounce cans per week by 2020, in keeping with the recommendations of the American Heart Association. We need to go back to smaller serving sizes. We need to limit the presence of vending machines with sugary drinks in schools, playgrounds, parks, public buildings, hospitals, and healthy work places, as some jurisdictions and institutions have begun doing. Public and private cafeterias can curtail the sale of full-sugar beverages—or price them higher than healthier fare—and aggressively promote water, skim milk, 100 percent juice, and unsweetened tea or coffee instead.
Life definitely is sweeter with fewer visits to the doctor and lower medical bills. Life is sweeter with fewer diabetic amputations, and when tax dollars are not squandered on preventable medical conditions. Life is sweeter without cavities and painful dental visits. Life is sweeter when we don’t keep outgrowing our clothes. Life is sweeter when we can play with our children without collapsing of exhaustion. It’s also sweeter for airline passengers who resent sharing half their seat with their neighbors, and much sweeter for employers and employees who pay lower health-care premiums and see absenteeism fall and productivity rise. Life is sweeter with clean, fresh water available from the tap or water fountain.
Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health advocacy organization supported largely by the 850,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI is a key player in battles against obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems, using tactics ranging from education to legislation to litigation. Jacobson has written numerous books and reports, including Nutrition Scoreboard, Six Arguments for a Greener Diet, “Salt: the Forgotten Killer,” and “Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans’ Health.”