Should Supersize Soda Be Banned?

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By Karen Cicero for Completely You

The day that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he wanted to ban city businesses -- including restaurants, movie theatres, and convenience stores -- from selling sweetened beverages that are larger than 16 ounces, I was having lunch in The Big Apple. I work there once a week, and I left the office for a business meeting at a nearby Mexican restaurant. The glasses for the fountain sodas there easily held 36 ounces -- maybe more. Hours before I watched this national news interview on TV, my lunch companion and I were talking about how absurd the size of drinks have become.

But a ban? I wasn’t sure. In the coming days, well-known people chose sides. Michelle Obama? Pro-ban. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show”? Let’s just say not so much. The president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics was down the middle: “The Academy supports strategies designed to encourage people to make healthful food choices,” said Sylvia Escott-Stump, a registered dietitian. “To date, most bans and taxations like the New York proposal are based on theoretical models. There is conflicting research on whether these programs actually result in behavior change that leads to positive health outcomes.” In other words, there’s no proof that bans actually work.

None of these opinions actually mattered to me as much as Brian Wansink’s. He’s the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and a professor at Cornell University, and he has done countless studies on how large portions encourage people to consume more -- 20-50 percent more. It’s his research that Bloomberg drew on. I’ve been to Wansink’s house. I’ve had dinner with his family and have even seen his stash of soda in the basement fridge. He has told me he keeps it there so it would be effortful for him to walk downstairs to get to it. So what did the portion guru think? Kindly put, “It’s ill-advised,” he said. In a recent editorial, he wrote, “This ban on large soft drinks will be a huge setback to fighting obesity for two reasons: 1) Unless it succeeds, it will poison the water for better solutions, and 2) it won’t succeed.”

Wansink said that people who really want to drink large amounts of soda will simply find a way to work around the ban. Plus, banning something almost always makes people want it more. As one of my friends posted on Facebook, “I don’t even like soda and I want a Big Gulp now.”

I’m inclined to agree with Wansink. Although his own research shows that if you got a 24-ounce soda plopped in front of you, you would consume more than if the waiter brought over a 16-ounce one, I still think it’s much better to educate adults to make smart choices -- not make the choices for them. And for the record, I totally supported Bloomberg’s ban on artery-clogging trans fats in New York City restaurants a couple of years ago (read about it here) because I didn’t feel like people had a choice: At many restaurants, almost all the food contained trans fats. With sweetened beverages, it’s different because you can order a small soda or -- better still -- skip the soda and drink water.

I know some of my nutrition-minded friends may consider my opinion to be disloyal -- and even disingenuous -- to the healthful-eating cause because they know I only allow my 9-year-old to drink soda on special occasions, but I ask this: Why don’t we spend all this time, money and effort encouraging people to drink non-sugary beverages like water, milk and unsweetened teas rather than a bit less of the empty-calorie junk? Tell me if you think Bloomberg’s plan will fizzle or not.

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Karen Cicero

Karen Cicero is Completely You’s Need to Know blogger. A health journalist and magazine editor with more than 15 years of experience, she has contributed to such publications as Prevention, SELF and Health, and she has edited the dental column for Heart & Soul magazine.

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