In 2010, when lawmakers in my then-homestate of Washington proposed a soda and candy tax, I opposed the idea. My aversion stemmed from knowledge of a stipulation in food stamp use: state-issued food benefits can’t be applied towards taxable items. So people who depended solely on food stamps for sustenance would be denied the option of purchasing candy or soda. While that restriction might have ultimately been “good” for their health, I found the idea of instituting a public health measure most targeted towards the poor distasteful.
I don’t see that problem with my current home city’s ban on large sodas, which the New York City Board of Health approved earlier today. Why? Sugary drinks are a leading cause of obesity because they have a secret weapon other high-calorie items don’t. They’ve got an unfair advantage on us, and the soda ban is a step in the right direction to combat that.
Here’s the deal — beverages don’t activate the same “full” sensation that food does. Eating 800 calories may leave you stuffed, but drinking 800 calories in soda has far from the same effect.
In an article I wrote on the topic for Dr. Oz’s website I explain that our bodies sense beverages and food using completely different mechanisms. If you eat 800 calories, those calories impact the body and the brain in such a way that you’ll reduce your consumption of other foods. However, when calories come in the form of a liquid—even if the calorie amount may be the same as the solid food—research shows that you don’t eat less later on. Drinking 800 calories before your meal doesn’t translate to eating 800 less calories during your meal.
We don’t sense fullness from beverages because humans didn’t evolve with a need for that skill. “One could speculate,” Richard Mattes a professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University told me for the Dr. Oz article, “that evolutionarily, after weaning, we really didn’t have energy-yielding beverages. Yes, we’ve had beer and alcohol for 12,000 years, but in the scope of evolutionary time that’s a trivial time frame. Throughout most of human evolution water was the beverage.” So for most of human history there was little need to judge calories in drinks because, aside from breast milk, calories in drinks just didn’t exist.
Super-sized sodas prey on that poor judgement, filling us with calories we can’t even sense we’re consuming.
As far as concerns from the soda sellers, I don’t see the giant soda ban (which limits sugary drinks at restaurants, street carts, and movie theaters to sixteen ounces) as a significant threat. Just look at the way coffee chains have gotten away with shrinking their drink sizes. Retailers can still sell “large” sodas for the same price, the cup will just have to be smaller. And if customers want more than sixteen ounces of soda, they’ll have to buy two drinks, giving the retailer more money than they would have if they could have bought one giant soda.
Yes, ounce per ounce the soda distributors will likely sell less soda to NYC retailers due to this ban. But ultimately, is this really an industry whose interests should be driving our health policies?