Weighty matters

Not all obesity and overweight are alike, as my friend and colleague Dean Ornish reminded us in a recent editorial in The New York Times. It still matters what you eat beyond the actual number of excess calories and resulting extra pounds.

One particular concern—pointed out both by Dr. Ornish in his editorial and in a current article in the New England Journal of Medicine—are the really terrible metabolic and health consequences of simple sugar. 

In addition to providing excess calories, there is no “benefit” from fiber or other nutrients  present in other, more complex carbohydrates (like fruits and vegetables). Plus, simple sugar is so rapidly absorbed and metabolized it sends insulin balance right out the window. So, yes, sugar is dangerous stuff.

And nowhere has this issue figured more prominently than the current “soda ban” instituted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City. In an effort to improve health and reduce the amount of sugar consumed by New Yorkers, this new law prohibits the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces.

It’s true that today an estimated 15 percent of total calories consumed come from soft drinks. And it’s also true that consumption of sweetened soft drinks is strongly correlated with consumption of foods with excess calories, the wrong kinds of fats, and even more sugar.

And there’s no denying that the effects are particularly devastating in children and adolescents. Sugar is directly contributing to the obesity epidemic in our nation’s youngsters. And in terms of diseases, research shows that children who have higher consumption of sweetened soft drinks are at higher risk not only of obesity but also developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and liver disease. Not so sweet.

In fact, I did my Ph.D. research on over-nutrition during childhood and the long-term risk of cancer. (Research which was published in both the medical and anthropological scientific literature.) My research found that people got onto a certain “track” when they were children. And, no matter what they did as adults, could not return their risk to normal levels when it comes to cancers such as breast in women, prostate in men, and colon in both.

So clearly, children need to be controlled in terms of their sugar consumption. Just like children also need to be controlled in many other ways by parents, teachers, and religious, community, and civic leaders. 

But whether this clear and present danger in children translates into treating adults like children with “nanny state” interventions on menus and serving sizes is another matter.

New York’s new soda ban is just one more example of a power-hungry “government gone wild.”

While no one should be relying on soda for hydration, what you drink as an adult—and how you handle your health—should be YOUR informed choice. I will inform you about the right choices without having to rely on  either “America’s Mayor” in New York City, or any “Big Brother.”

“Eating for health, not weight,” The New York Times (www.nytimes.com), 9/22/12
“Calories from soft drinks—do they matter?” New England Journal of Medicine 2012; Sept. 21 (epub ahead of print)