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Let me weigh in on the controversial issue of sugary drinks. Mayor Bloomberg of New York City has proposed a ban on the sale of sugar-containing drinks of more that 16 ounces. If adopted no more Big Gulps could be sold in NYC.
As would be expected, those of a libertarian persuasion decry this proposal as an attack on personal freedom. They tell us we are becoming a “Nanny-state” and this means the end of freedom.
Mayor Bloomberg previously banned smoking in bars and transfats in restaurants, both important public health measures. There was strong opposition but he prevailed. As would be expected the beverage industry is already fighting his new ban with full-page ads in the New York Times and on-line stuff.
Personally I think the mayor of New York City is a hero. I view health as more important than freedom because one cannot enjoy freedom if sick or dead. Plus the costs of health care for obesity and diabetes affects us all. Oliver Wendell Holmes said “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” To me this means that the rule of law and regulations may, and indeed must, interfere with personal freedom when that freedom harms another.
Mark Bittman’s recent column in the New York Times entitled What Is Food points out that we all pay the price for the harmful effects of Coke and Snapple just as we pay for the price of smoking.
He goes on to make a very important point. “Sugar-sweetened beverages are nothing more than sugar delivery systems and sugar is probably the most dangerous part of our current diet.” Because pundits and scientists argue about whether sugar leads to obesity, Bittman calls Bloomberg’s ban an attempt to reduce sugar consumption. His reasoning? His dictionary defines food as any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth. Bittman adds the following definition of NUTRITIOUS food as providing those substances necessary for growth health and good condition.
And he declares that sugar-sweetened beverages are NOT FOOD. They definitely provide growth, and overgrowth, but do the opposite of providing health and good condition.
I have suspected this for many years. I used to caution parents about juice (roughly juice has the same amount of sugar as Coke does). No question there are vitamins in some juice (not all) so I formerly told parents to dilute the juice with half water. My advice today? LITTLE OR NO JUICE. Lots of WATER for thirst and FRESH FRUIT for a snack. Then the child satisfies the sweet tooth that we all have and gets vitamins and fiber to boot.
Speaking of our sweet tooth, Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary bilogy at Harvard, also had a column in the New York Times called, Evolution’s Sweet Tooth. He writes, “Lessons from evolutionary biology support the mayor’s plan: when it comes to limiting sugar in our food some kinds of coercive action are not only necessary but consistent with how we use to live.” Energy imbalance (taking in more calories than you need) causes obesity. “Of the many contributors to energy imbalance today plentiful sugar may be the worst.”
We have evolved to crave sugar (a good source of energy), store it our bodies in the form of fat (too much sugar in the bloodstream is toxic) and then burn the fat to go out hunting and gathering which is hard work. Lieberman points out that for eons human cravings and digestive system were in balance because sugar was rare. Today it is very plentiful and cheap thanks to agribusiness and high-fructose corn syrup. The food industry does very well because, “…we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful.”
Lieberman supports public education and prevention which has had only modest effectiveness and lauds Mayor Bloomberg’s plan as small coercive step in the right direction. Because children cannot make rational decisions, society has long agreed that parents cannot make disastrous decisions that affect children. Thus we require school, immunizations, and seat belt usage. We should also ban all unhealthy food in schools and insist upon daily physical education. We should require the food industry to be honest about portion size and refrain from advertising highly fattening food as fat free. We should tax soda and junk food as we do cigarettes.
All of this will be difficult because the food industry is very powerful and very rich, riches gained by enabling people to be in continuous energy imbalance. “We humans did not evolve to eat healthily and go to the gym. But we did evolve to help one another survive and thrive. We still need one another’s help as much as we ever did. For this reason we need government on our side, not on the side of those who wish to make money by stoking our cravings and profiting from them. We have evolved to need coercion.”
All parents should agree and work together to make our country a healthier place for children. All parents must also take their individual responsibility for their children’s health very seriously. Kids do not do the grocery shopping or choose the restaurants. We do. We must stock our cupboards with healthy food and model healthful eating. Our children’s very lives depend upon it.
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