Prevention is always a big buzzword in health care reform, and lifestyle choices that decrease the risk of developing costly and debilitating chronic diseases are a huge part of this frequent conversation. A glance at the cover of this week’s Time magazine shows an issue devoted to prevention and wellness throughout the lifespan, and an article called “Food as Pharma” leaves no question about the impact of what we put into our mouths in terms of health and wellness.
With uncanny timing, the magazine arrived the day I had a scheduled interview with renowned nutrition/obesity expert Dr. Barry Popkin, author of The World is Fat as well as recent research linking the consumption of sugary beverages to negative health outcomes. He claims drinking one extra 12-ounce can of regular soda a day, at 140 calories, can cause you to gain 13 pounds in a year.
Dr. Popkin is a strong supporter of taxing beverages like soda and whole milk the way cigarettes are; in fact, he considers soda “the next big tobacco.”
When Massachusetts announced a plan to require chains to list the calories in their items staring next year, the gamut of reactions was predictably wide: some thought it was a great way to make consumers more conscious of their choices; others thought it was an egregious governmental interference into our lives. Against this backdrop, I was certainly excited to discuss Dr. Popkin’s research with him. Here is some of our conversation:
Why is soda the next big tobacco?
Like tobacco, soft drinks and sugary beverages have no health benefits beyond pleasing us, and they have many drawbacks.
According to Dr. Popkin, what makes sugary beverages unique in terms calorie intake is that drinking these calories does not reduce our food intake—normally when we eat food, even junk food, we cut other food intake down.
From an evolutionary point of view, he pointed out that humans always drank water or breast milk. If we go without water for three days, we could die but if we don’t eat, it could take a month to two months to die. Over time, we developed mechanisms where the food and thirst mechanisms are separate, which adds to the unique caloric qualities of sugary beverages.
“Not only don’t they benefit us but they a 100 percent to our poor health by adding to our calories,” he says. What’s more, research suggests that the fructose in sucrose (natural sugar) or high fructose corn syrup adds directly to visceral fat, which is the fat around the heart and liver—and it is the only substance known to do this. It is the most toxic type of fat in terms of diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well as some cancers, so removing sugary beverages is a prime prevention method. (You knew I’d circle back to prevention, right?)
What about the tax and health reform?
Comparing this to the decrease in smokers (and by extension, the health consequences of smoking) as a result of the cigarette tax, Popkin maintains that taxing soda and sugary beverages will reduce the risk of overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. (He also has forthcoming research in this area). Massachusetts is one of a handful of states considering this kind of tax. Popkin also noted that on a larger scale, the United States lags behind many high-end nations in reducing the consumption of sugary beverages.
“We are good at causing disease but not good at fixing it,” Popkin says, a comment that goes beyond the idea of the soda tax and hits on the basic structure of our current medical system. Right now, we spend too much on band-aids for the problems rather than taking steps to correct them at the source. To that end, Popkin sees the beverage tax as a major way to help fund reform and improve health and quality of life.
What is the response to those who think such policies might go too far?
In response to this sentiment, Popkin pointed to previous public health initiatives that were initially met with resistance, like seatbelt use, measures to curb smoking, and putting fluoride in the water. “Clearly there isn’t a single public health initiative that hasn’t faced these arguments,” he says.
He also counters with the following facts: Right now, we’re ranked between 30-35th percent in life expectancy and health care costs are swamping us. Need more statistics on sugary beverages? Forty percent of soda drinkers consume a whopping 600-900 calories a day from their drinks. And, as many of us might now realize, he says natural sugar is just as bad as drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup—they both contain fructose, and both add to visceral fat and calorie count.
The way I see it, framing soda as the next big tobacco is also an extension of an even broader debate: if prevention is a fundamental component of health reform, what is the best way to accomplish it?
It’s your turn to weigh in: is soda the next big tobacco?
For more information, check out the video posted below, where Dr. Popkin and colleagues discuss the health impacts of sugary beverages at a recent International Chair on Cardiometabolic Risk (ICCR) conference: