Big Cokes and Big Brother in the Big City
by Sue Kemple, CHC, AADP
The Wellness Wordsmith
I grew up about an hour’s drive from Manhattan, and even as a child of Bronx natives who brought me there often, New York City has always had a way of capturing my imagination. Aside from the bright lights of Broadway, the Wall Street mayhem, and the storied sports team championships (yes, GO GIANTS!), the most enduring image in my mind is that of Lady Liberty holding the torch to light the way for the European immigrants of yesteryear – especially my own courageous ancestors, welcoming them from arduous journeys across the ocean to a land of opportunity, possibility, and freedom.
But for the past week or so, the primary image that keeps coming to my mind when I think of New York is a mega-sized 32 ounce Coke alongside a bag of butter (flavored) popcorn, with a big red X across it.
Sure does take the sweeping romance and noble majesty out of my imagination.
As you probably know, Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week put forth a proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces for the city’s restaurants, mobile food carts, delicatessens and concessions at movie theaters, sports stadiums and entertainment arenas. There are all sorts of opinions flying around out there on both sides of the issue.
Lots of people who make a living being concerned with food and health are all for it. New York Times Op-Ed columnist and author Mark Bittman thinks it’s not such a bad idea because sugary drinks aren’t really food, and if it’s okay for the government to put restrictions on smoking, alcohol, and driving a motorcycle without a helmet, then there’s probably nothing wrong with putting some limits on a ubiquitous “sugar delivery system” that contributes mightily to a public health crisis. He makes a lot of valid points.
And then the good folks at McDonald’s, with whom I pretty much agree about nothing, came out and said in response to the proposal, “Public health issues cannot be effectively addressed through a narrowly focused and misguided ban. This is a complex topic, and one that requires a more collaborative and comprehensive approach.”
And wow, there you have it… McDonald’s actually put forth a statement I agree with. (Even though they only put it out there so they could continue to profit from selling gargantuan-sized sugar delivery systems.)
What’s a Libertarian-minded holistic health coach writer to do?
Well, I think what I should do is point out that this whole argument really misses the point. What seems to be lost in all this debate over a Super-Sized Big Gulp (wait, no… for some reason, the ban doesn’t affect convenience stores, so your 7-11 Super Coke is still good to go!) is that no matter what the local governments do to try and improve their citizens’ health, the government itself is a huge culprit in having brought the problem on in the first place. In fact, our federal government is perhaps the biggest contributor to the sorry state of our health across the nation.
The food industry has tremendous influence at the highest levels of government, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the USDA Food Pyramid, which I’ve referenced several times before in this blog. Back in 1992 when the pyramid was first introduced, our health problems began to accelerate. One of the primary reasons why was because the federal government was telling us what to eat in order to be healthy in a rather unhelpful – and untrue – cartoon format.
Here’s the cute drawing in its original form.
Sure, there’s the requisite recommendation of fruits and vegetables – right below the recommendations to eat about the same amount of dairy and meat products. Fats, sweets and oils are to be used “sparingly,” but without any clear guidance as to what “sparingly” means. (Apparently, too many Americans just don’t see soda as belonging in the “sweets” category. It must be in the beverage category that somehow got left off the pyramid.)
Worst of all? The USDA was telling us to eat more bread, cereal, rice and pasta than anything else. These are not healthy whole grains like quinoa and millet, but what appear to be (from the little pictures drawn inside the pyramid) insulin-spiking and fat producing highly processed foodstuffs like Wonder Bread, macaroni and cheese, and Cheerios. No nutritionist worth his salt would call any of these foods healthy. They are barely even food.
(Wonder Bread is not food, in case you were “wondering.”)
And yet until very recently, this is the “food group” the government has been telling us is more important than any other food group. Of course, the “expert authorities” in the relevant departments of the federal government (the USDA and FDA, especially) have typically been appointed from within the food industry itself, in what’s become known as the “revolving door” between agribusiness and the regulatory agencies created to oversee it.
The so-called authorities aren’t actually experts about nutrition at all, nor are they primarily interested in the public’s health. Their primary interest is profit for the food industry.
It’s this kind of government meddling in our food choices that is the most worrisome to me. No government at any level is any kind of expert when it comes to health. (Just like it’s no expert when it comes to education, but that’s a post for a different blog.) Case in point: when the ban on these monster drinks in New York City is applied only to those that contain sugar but NOT to diet drinks that are laden with dangerous artificial sweeteners and contribute just as much to the obesity crisis as sugary drinks do – oh, and cancer and migraines and irritability and who knows what else we’ve yet to discover – then it’s obvious this is NOT the entity that should be making decisions for our good in this arena.
Yes, sugar is a dangerous thing. But a little bit of knowledge can be, too.
So, what do I think of this ban on huge drinks? Not much. It’s really no more insidious than the government regulation of so many other substances – and yes, I think some of those regulations are insidious too, but the government is what it is. While I tend to lean toward less government regulation and more genuine education, I really don’t think this ban on a certain drink size is going to do a whole heck of a lot to improve anyone’s health, nor do much damage to anyone’s civil liberties.
But if the local and state governments wanted to make a real difference in the health of their people in ways that might be considered a bit more appropriate along the lines of their regulatory authority and responsibility, here are a just few ideas that might have a real impact and wouldn’t infringe quite so much on civil liberties:
- Use public service announcements and the power of the media to encourage your citizens to buy local foods as much as you encourage them to buy local everything else. It’s good for the economy and your citizenry’s collective waistlines, blood pressure, and productivity.
- Ban the vending machines in schools. Protecting children IS the government’s responsibility when they require them to attend their schools every day, and making such poisonous foodstuff readily available to them is criminal. Keep the candy and the soda away from kids, and don’t listen to the howls about all the money the schools will lose if you do. Too much money is being wasted on things like standardized testing anyway.
- And speaking of standardized testing, take some of the funding away from that inane racket and put it towards growing, buying and preparing real, fresh, whole foods for your meal programs. Authorize funds to have real experts revamp your health curriculum to focus on nutrition that has its basis in fact and not agribusiness. And make sure you’re supporting (not mandating!) efforts at the school level to increase students’ knowledge about what will give them long and healthy lives, not just what will improve your test scores. Honestly, in the end, what’s more important?
Oh, Lady Liberty – I doubt you ever thought you’d see the day when people would make such noise about your protecting their freedom to kill themselves with massive sugar delivery systems. But these are strange times we live in, indeed. I think I’ll have a green smoothie instead. Cheers!