Restructuring America’s Food Environment

Soda bans & junk food taxes—how will these policies help us become healthier?

In America’s biggest metropolis, on the other side of the country from Greenbrae and Novato, controversy is brewing. In an effort to combat obesity by restricting access to so-called “liquid candy,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on sugary beverages over 16 ounces, stirring up feelings on both sides of the issue. Many have praised it as a bold move forward, but many others have criticized it as an attack on personal freedom.

Though beverage industry advocates have made claims that sodas and other too-sweet beverages can be a healthy part of any person’s diet, you as a participant in a medical weight loss program may be a bit more skeptical. As you focus on developing a healthier lifestyle and diet, you will likely realize just how problematic these calorie-packed drinks can be, especially for those trying to lose weight.

Unfortunately, there are many less-informed adults out there who are not so lucky. One in three American adults is now overweight, and a big part of the problem may be our inability to understand just how bad many elements of our diets are. Policymakers and health advocates have highlighted the importance of education in fighting obesity, but one important concept serves as the basis for things like soda bans and taxes on unhealthy foods: we need to make our food environment healthier, to help people choose the most nutritious foods by making them the most readily available options.

 

Designing a Healthier America

Soda advocates have played the “freedom of choice” card many times when confronting attempts to restrict soda options, but Bloomberg’s ban wouldn’t necessarily prevent anyone from choosing to drink more than 16 ounces—it would just make it less convenient for them to do so, forcing them to buy multiple drinks to get a bigger portion. Only time will tell if these policies are effective, but the hope is that inconvenience will make people more apt to avoid unhealthy decisions.

In America, we do place an emphasis on letting people make their own decisions about most things. We are, after all, the Land of the Free. However, people often have a tough time understanding the realities of nutritional facts and portion sizes. Research has shown that even if the size of a cup doubles, many consumers can’t tell that they’re getting twice as much, while many others have a difficult time determining how many calories or serving sizes are in a particular package. Others even assume that a drink is healthy merely because they see fruit on the label.

The unfortunate reality is that we will likely not be able to reverse the spread of obesity without some kind of government intervention. Though we may instinctually stiffen against policies that restrict our options, we need to recognize that these policies are the help that many people need to become healthier. Many people who don’t understand how it feels to be overweight are quick to point the finger at the obese, believing their excess weight to be the result of poor lifestyle decisions. But the American food environment is undeniably treacherous, with advertising constantly encouraging us to eat the worst possible foods whenever possible and at relatively low cost.

Voluntary industry guidelines have already drastically reduced the amount of sugary beverages available in schools. According to the American Beverage Association, a soda advocacy group, PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. have reduced the amount of beverage calories shipped to schools by 88 percent since 2004. These changes may be huge advances in the fight against childhood obesity, and could help us develop a healthier future for our country, but other policies like Bloomberg’s may be what we need to fight obesity for all Americans.

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