Sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity

So, I’ve been watching HBO’s four-part documentary, “The Weight of the Nation” the past week and it as a sobering and depressing look at just how unhealthy our nation has become in regards to weight.  It’s easy to just blame all the individuals for not being more self-disciplined, but the simple truth is that when you look at the stunning and rise in obesity there is clearly something systematic at work far beyond the decisions of any given individual.  And, when there’s something systematic at work that’s bad for the American public– and its really hard to disagree on that point– then it’s time for the government to step in and do something.  A great start would be to stop subsidizing unhealthy food– as if that could happen any time soon.  And since that won’t happen, government tries other things.  Like trying to reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Here’s a popular CDC chart that shows what we’re dealing with weight-wise:

I seem to recall one of the many factoids that of all the correlates with overweight and obesity out there, consumption rates of sugar-sweetened beverages were actually the best predictor of being overweight.  Thus, it certainly would seem that policies to try and cut down on this would be a good thing.  Nonetheless, I’m fairly skeptical of whether NYC’s policy will work and I think you really do have to question where we want to be a society where the government tells you how big your soda cup can be.  I was pondering this while getting my 4th Diet Dr. Pepper (tastes more like regular Dr Pepper!  Love it when fountain outlets have it) refill at the local sub-par pizza joint today and thinking what would they do, say no refills for regular Dr Pepper?  Give me the 20 oz cup because I told them I would fill up with diet but a 16 oz cup if I said I intended to get regular?  Obviously, there’s practical issues with making this work.

Over at Wonkblog, Sarah Kliff relies on some interesting research by Brian Wansink about portion size to argue that this NYC just might work:

Portion size, on the other hand, has consistently been shown to affect how much we eat. In one well-known experiment, Philadelphia moviegoers were given either a medium or large bucket of stale, two-week old popcorn. Those with the large bucket ate 33.6 percent more popcorn, despite the fact it tasted pretty awful. When the package size of a snack food is doubled, calories consumed tend to go up by about a third.

“The more general explanation of why large packages and portions increase consumption may be that they suggest larger consumption norms,” writes Cornell University’s Brian Wansink, who has pioneered much of the research on food portion size. “They implicitly suggest what might be construed as a “normal” or ‘appropriate’ amount to consume.”

Alas, I caught an interview with Wansick on public radio yesterday and he said he didn’t actually think this approach would work and might actually be counter-productive by convincing people that public policy efforts to address obesity are doomed to failure.  NYC is going through with this, so I guess we’ll see.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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