Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

May 9, 2013

America's youth: Rethinking what we drink

Josh Jacobs
The Andover Townsman

---- — During an exhausting road trip recently, my ultimate Frisbee teammates and I managed to drag our aching legs across a parking lot and into Chipotle for some late-night grub. With heavy eyelids, empty stomachs and 10 hours on the road under our belts, making healthy choices wasn’t exactly a priority. Walking in, I said, “You know, Chipotle burritos taste so much better with soda.” For some reason, though, I decided against a cup of soda, instead opting for ice water. And nothing felt different.

It’s so tempting to want the Coke, the Arnold Palmer, the Monster to round out our meals. However, these sugar-sweetened beverages — SSBs — are unnecessary and extremely detrimental to our health and well-being. It is time that we reconsider — during every snack, every meal, every time in the drive-thru — what liquids we are consuming, especially as a new generation begins to develop and mature. By decreasing intake of liquid calories from sugary beverages, we can observe marked changes in obesity rates, the prevalence of disease and overall physical and mental health.

Ever since I was a small child, my peers and I have been reminded of the negative dental effects of SSBs. No kid wants to have rotten and stained teeth like our friend Austin Powers. A report published in 2001 by the Minnesota Dental Association stated that all soft drinks are highly acidic and that colas can reach pH readings more acidic than 2.4. Subjecting enamel to Coke for only one hour led to significant tooth decay and surface irregularities. Hopefully, most people are now aware of these troubling findings. What many people are not aware of, though, are the hazards of regular SSB consumption beyond tooth decay.

The American Heart Association recently reported that sugary drinks are a factor in 180,000 obesity-related deaths per year. In the U.S., 10 percent of obesity-related deaths were linked to SSBs. Mounting evidence suggests that consumption of liquid calories produces less satiety than does consumption of solid foods, leading to excessive caloric intake and contributing to heightened obesity rates. To support this claim, a 2010 University of Minnesota study found that chronic sugar consumption weakens the brain’s ability to prevent overeating.

Additionally, The New York Times reported on a 2012 Harvard study directly linking a daily 12-ounce serving of soda to a 19 percent increase in the relative risk of cardiovascular disease. In a report to the surgeon general, here’s what a group of prominent health organizations had to say: “Soda and other sugary drinks are the only food or beverage that has been directly linked to obesity, a major contributor to coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and a cause of psychosocial problems.”

What’s especially troubling is that coupled with these dangers is the reality that SSBs are on the rise in this country. According to the National Cancer Institute, sugary drinks constitute the largest source of calories (226 per day) in teens’ diets. Not only do children get hooked at an early age — the 2001 Minnesota report indicated that 20 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds and virtually 50 percent of children ages 6 to 11 consume soft drinks – but as a result, they are also drinking fewer healthy beverages such as milk.

The question is, how do we control the rapid proliferation of soda and SSB consumption among children today? How do we take a stand in a culture that promotes soda bottles during celebrations, allows schools to profit from deals with soft drink manufacturers and markets 64-ounce Big Gulps with free refills?

Schools can control the environment to which children are exposed on a daily basis, and they must better educate students about the gamut of health problems that can arise from SSB consumption while eliminating the hypocrisy that comes with placing SSB-containing vending machines right outside of health education classrooms. Teachers can also suggest gallons of water or milk as opposed to bottles of soda and juice for their class celebrations. A party with cookies and milk is a lot more reasonable than a party with cookies and Sprite, Dr. Pepper and Arizona Iced Tea. At the very least, a water option should be provided.

Furthermore, presentation is important. I am convinced that if water had a whole label and nozzle to itself on soda dispensers in restaurants, cafeterias and college dining halls nationwide, it would be consumed more often. More water consumption would mean less soda consumption. Manufacturers and the beverage industry may be resistant to this concept due to a loss in revenue and decrease in diversity of options; thus, legislation would be required in order for it to be mandated.

It is also up to all of us to model behavioral patterns. No matter what we tell children, it is what we do that will have the most enduring effect on their minds, attitudes and actions. For example, it may be tempting to get a soda at a restaurant because of the free refills, but here’s a better deal: asking for a cup of ice water! It’s free, including unlimited refills, and it’s a much healthier option. Another example: when exercising, consume more water and healthy drink options rather than regularly drinking high-calorie, sugary beverages such as Vitamin Water.

Research indicates that SSBs are causing a plethora of serious and urgent health problems in this country and around the world. Now more than ever is the time for policy-makers to intervene by perhaps taxing SSBs, incentivizing healthy choices in schools and increasing the prevalence of health education campaigns while decreasing the number of SSB ads targeted at young children. It will take the assistance of citizens to save children from poor lifestyle choices and a host of long-term medical issues.

It is common to refer to previous generations and remark, “He was a frequent smoker before we figured out how terrible cigarettes really are for the body.” Hopefully, years down the road, we can speak this way about soft drinks. It’s time to make a change. It’s time to rethink what we drink.

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Josh Jacobs is a 2011 graduate of Andover High School who is now a sophomore at Yale University in Connecticut. He wrote this piece on the long-term health consequences of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption for his Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food course.