Obesity-related illnesses account for nearly 10 percent of all medical spending in the United States – an estimated $147 billion each year. Recent reports and study findings indicate that excess consumption of soda and other sugary beverages may be contributing to America’s increasing weight. New York City Health Commissioner, Thomas A. Farley told the Epoch Times that “Drinking beverages loaded with sugars increases the risk of obesity and associated problems, particularly diabetes but also heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancer.” Initiatives have been launched to help cap consumption, including a public awareness advertising campaign in New York City and proposed taxation on sugary beverages, but their success has yet to be documented.
CNN reports that sugary soft drinks contribute about 10 percent of the calories in the American diet. An “Extra Large” 32-ounce Coke contains 400 calories, nearly a quarter of the caloric total required by an average adult woman each day. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analyzed the national beverage consumption patterns of over 73,000 individuals over two years of age and found that between 1977 and 2001, overall calories from sweetened beverages had increased 135 percent. Findings from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy indicated that 62 percent of children ages 12 to 17 and 41 percent between 2 and 11 consume at least one sugar-sweetened beverage daily. The same UCLA study also found that adults who consumed one or more sweetened beverage each day were 27 percent more lightly to be overweight or obese.
Wayne Campbell, professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition at Purdue University, explained that the human body does not react in the same way to solid and liquid calories, making these “sugar bombs” particularly problematic. A mix of hormones control appetite, ghrelin being the one that signals that it is time to eat again. When a large meal is consumed, ghrelin levels drop for several hours, however this does not occur when a large quantity of a sugary beverage is taken in. According to Harvard endocrinologist Dr. David Ludwig, the sugars in soda are rapidly absorbed, “which raises blood sugar and in effect causes the body to go into panic.” Insulin is released to break down the sugar, “but the body overcompensates, and blood sugar drops below the fasting level.” In response to low blood sugar levels, ghrelin and other hormones are secreted, triggering hunger and causing an individual to consume more.
According to Dr. Harold Goldstein, over the last 30 years, Americans consume at least 278 more calories daily, though physical activity levels have remained the same. Dr. Goldstein explained that during that period, soda and other sugary beverages accounted for as much as 43 percent of the new caloric intake. An American Heart Association survey indicated soft drinks comprised the top source of “discretionary sugar calories.” According to their findings, women should consume no more than 100 calories of added processed sugar per day (6 teaspoons), and men should limit their intake to 150 calories (nine teaspoons). Just one 12-ounce soda can contain as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup, compounds of which researchers at Rutgers University say may start a chemical chain reaction leading to diabetes.
In an effort to raise awareness about the potential health concerns of drinking too much soda, the Fund for Public Health in New York has provided funding for an advertising campaign. The ads, which will run on 1,500 subway cars for three months, feature images of soda and other drinks becoming human fat as they are poured from bottles. “Are you pouring on the pounds?” the ads inquire, urging consumers to consider water or milk as alternatives to soda in order to not “drink [themselves] fat.” In the same vein, public health officials and U.S. health experts are calling for increased taxes on sweetened soft drinks. A study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine cited research on the price elasticity of soda, indicating that for every 10 percent rise in price consumption declines 8 to 10 percent. Thirty-three states currently have sales taxes on soft drinks, but these existing taxes are viewed as too minor to affect consumption levels, and unlike the proposed tax initiatives, are not earmarked for health-related programs.
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