All this week, NHPR has been looking at the challenge of reducing the number of overweight people in the state.
At the national level, there is the barest glimmer of good news. One study suggests that obesity rates among some groups might be leveling off.
A separate analysis found that the consumption of certain sugars in our diet dropped about 25%
Taken together, the two results have drawn even more attention to one of the most common American habits – drinking sweetened soda, teas, and fruit drinks.
At the heart of both studies is a federal nutrition survey that collects detailed information on thousands of boys, girls, men and women.
Cynthia Ogden is part of the CDC team that plows through those numbers to track obesity rates. They looked at changes in the past decade. Given historic trends, they sort of expected to see the rate climb by about 7 percent. Ogden says, what they found instead was a much lower number.
“That was particularly true for women where there was no change in prevalence of obesity over a ten year period. In men however, there was an increase, although the increase was not as steep as it was in the earlier decades.”
They did not find a decrease in obesity. But if America’s spreading waistline is like a super tanker, turning things around will happen slowly and these results might be the first signs of change.
Meanwhile, a group of Emory University researchers found a significant shift in what Americans are putting into their bellies. In the past ten years, they’ve cut way back on what are called the added sugars. Dr. Miriam Vos at Emory says these are the sweeteners put into drinks, cookies and other processed foods to make them more desirable.
Vos says the amount dropped by about 25 percent.
“And that’s a big change because you take kind of an average adult with an average daily consumption of calories, that’s a whole drink change. A reasonable 12 ounce beverage that had sugar in it. I mean, this is not like they just changed it by they had a couple swallows less of something.”
Vos uses a 12 ounce soda as a benchmark because that’s what her group found people were cutting from their diet. Drinking less soda accounted for two-thirds of the decline.
Vos cautions, this study does not prove that soda is the driving factor in America’s weight problem. But for the people who aim to reduce how much of these drinks we consume, these results confirm their beliefs.
“So this was the launch of 5-2-1-0”
Shawn LaFrance is the head of New Hampshire’s Foundation for Healthy Communities. 5-2-1-0 is the simple campaign to reduce the number of overweight kids. It means -- 5 fruits or vegetables a day, no more than two hours in front of the TV or computer. And for the rest, let us hear from Lucy Eills of Concord who won the 5-2-1-0 jingle contest.
“one hour of exercise, you can have fun. Zero sweetened sugar drinks. Zero means none.”
No soda whatsoever. Ditto for the ersatz fruit drink – that’s a hard line coming from an kid in elementary school but New Hampshire is far from the first place to target these beverages. And the Granite State style is definitely tamer than what they did in New York City. LaFrance saw those ads on the subway.
“They really grab you because they’re frankly, gross.”
A few years ago, the city’s health department launched a campaign called pouring on the pounds. The subway poster showed glistening red veined fat spilling from a cola bottle and oozing down the side of a glass. On television, one ad tallied a daily sugar load.
“Does this sound familiar? You grab a mid morning soda. A sweetened tea at lunch. A frozen coffee drink in the afternoon and a couple of sodas at dinner. Seems harmless enough. But that many sugary drinks a day can add up to a lot of sugar.”
If the grand total of 93 packets of sugar that popped up on the screen didn’t shock you, the photo of a diabetic’s black and rotted toes would.
Cathy Nonas, New York’s director of Physical Activity and Nutrition makes no apologies. Nonas, says, compared to what the beverage industry does, her ads barely balance the scales.
“They’re spending billions and billions of dollars to get us to drink their empty calories. We needed to have something that was in your face to call attention to what this actually means.”
Needless to say, the makers of these drinks don’t care for this approach. The American Beverage Association sued the city to get a full accounting of the data that lay behind the ads.
ABA Spokesman Chris Gindlesperger says these days, his industry is unfairly singled out. He says there’s no evidence these drinks are driving the problem of obesity. Gindlesperger emphasizes that sweetened drinks amount to just 7 percent of the daily calories for the typical person.
“While we’re a small piece of the average American diet, some in the world of big academia would assign us 100% of the blame for very serious, very complex issues like obesity.”
He says physical activity is just as important as what and how much we consume. Gindlesperger emphasizes that the beverage industry has taken important voluntary steps, including prominently posting the calories of their drinks on the front of every container.
“There’s no difference between the calories in our products and any other calorie in any other food or beverage.”
In terms of food energy, no one argues that point. But Miriam Vos at Emory University says when you drink for example a sweetened tea, all you get is sugar and water. The other calories we take in when we eat other food generally come with the proteins, minerals and fats that our bodies need.
“Is there a reason to pay more attention to added sugars? Yes, because in general, people are getting more calories than they want. And this category of calories do not bring other nutrients.”
There is a quiet contest playing out in our food store aisles and our restaurants. On one side, the makers of these sugary drinks. On the other, a host of people ranging from school nurses to researchers.
If the past decade is any guide, it looks as though more people have decided to listen to that second group and cut back on the sweet stuff. The beverage industry contends there is no proof that alone will reduce obesity but probably, to invoke a different liquid food, like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt.
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene campaign regarding sugar consumption
Warning: Some of these videos contain nauseating content.