There are a lot of things I love about New York City... from the theater, to amazing restaurants, to world-renowned museums, there's pretty much nothing you can't get in the Big Apple. Except sodas larger than 16 ounces.
That is, if Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way.
Note that it's totally and completely legal to buy cancer-causing cigarettes and to gorge on 2,000-calorie cheesecake, but under a proposed bill before the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, it'd be illegal to grab a soda bigger than 16 ounces starting in March 2013. If you want a larger size at a restaurant, deli, movie theater, sporting event or food cart, you'd have to buy two 12 oz sodas.
I'm not officially a New Yorker anymore (since I live about 30 minutes north of the city now) and I don't drink regular soda unless I have a low blood sugar and I'm desperate, so it's not like I'm taking this ban personally. I just think regular soda is calorie-filled, nutrient-deficient, artificially-everything carbonated water.
So while the people most upset by this ban are probably the vendors, I think the basis for Bloomberg's ban isn't outrageous (even if it is misguided).
We know that type 2 diabetes isn't caused by obesity, but it's a risk factor and there's a strong correlation. Experts also argue that carbohydrates are large part of the obesity problem, not just fat. A 16-ounce regular soda is chock-full of carbohydrates (39 grams in Coke) but contains zero fat and isn't even particularly high in calories either (138 calories). However, I also don't think banning a particular size of soda container will solve the obesity or the type 2 diabetes epidemic. That's because regular soda is just one piece of the much larger obesity pie (pun most definitely intended).
Some folks do believe Bloomberg is making a good point here. "This ban brings about discussion of the larger issue that food portions are just too big," said registered dietician and CDE Megan Fendt, who works at the Friedman Diabetes Institute in Manhattan, where we contacted her. "Even if the ban doesn't go through, it's a good thing because it's raising awareness about how big our food and drinks are when they don't need to be."
Ericka Arrecis, a registered dietician at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center in Manhattan, also supports the proposed ban. "There are so many contributing factors to the obesity problem, but I think if we do little changes at a time, we may see larger results later on," explains Arrecis, who sees many patients with type 2 diabetes struggle with weaning themselves off sweetened soda and other beverages.
And political TV reporter Dominic Carter, who grew up in a poor NYC neighborhood and developed type 2 diabetes himself, writes in a Huffington Post piece: "Maybe if Michael Bloomberg was the mayor when I was a kid in NYC, I wouldn't have to now also go take my four blood pressure pills to go with the daily diabetes regimen."
The irony of the situation is the fact that this anti-soda ban was announced on National Donut Day, which is supported by the Bloomberg Administration. I wish I was kidding. He even issued an official proclamation and everything. Dunkin Donuts' Boston Kreme Donut also comes with 39 grams of carbohydrate... but is loaded with 16 grams of fat and 310 calories. And apparently that's just fine with the Mayor.
On the Today Show last Friday, Matt Lauer criticized his guest, Bloomberg, saying, "Your administration has come out in support of National Donut Day. It sounds ridiculous."
Bloomberg defended himself saying, "It doesn't sound ridiculous, one doughnut is not going to hurt you. In moderation, most things are OK."
You can't see me, but I'm rolling my eyes bigger than ever before. Bloomberg is contradicting himself! If he really believes everything in moderation is OK, then he would trust the population to moderate themselves, including soda. OR... he would also protest against other portion increases, like doughnuts and pastries sold in sizes that would have made our great grandparents eyes pop.
The ban essentially says Bloomberg doesn't trust New Yorkers to moderate themselves, and he's honing in on cup sizes... even though you can still 1) refill your cup, 2) buy two 12 oz. sodas, or 3) buy another high-calorie drink that isn't soda, like juice, frappuccinos or milkshakes (it's all good as long as it's 50% milk) that come in super-sizes.
While the media has cheekily coined this the "Ban on the Big Gulp," that's actually not true. That's because 7-11, which serves the Big Gulp, arguably one of the worst things you can consume with 91 grams of sugar (the "Super Big Gulp" has 128 grams of sugar), is exempt from the Bloomberg ban because 7-11 falls under the "grocery and convenience store" loop-hole. You can't hear me, but now I'm banging my head against the wall.
Lauer asked if Bloomberg thought that folks might just walk down the street to the convenience store to pick up a 20-ounce bottle of Coke or Dr. Pepper. Bloomberg acknowledged that was a possibility. "Some will and they still have the right to do that and [the ban] doesn't hurt them at all. But those who will drink less or eat less, those people will be better off."
His rationale is that people eat what is put in front of them. Studies do show that when they eat from smaller plates, they eat less. Which is fine, but what's to stop politicians from banning large French fries? Or restaurants from serving meals with more than 700 calories? There's a slippery slope here, People.
Effects of This Ban
OK, so if Bloomberg is pulling the "making an example" trick, singling out one "bad guy" to make a point... How effective is that? Let's have a look at some response so far:
* Shannon Brownlee, author of Overtreated and acting director of the New America Foundation's Health Policy Program, suggests this ban might "reset" our expectations on what is appropriate, similar to how bans on smoking has made smoking less acceptable (can you imagine what Don Draper would think?). Note that Bloomberg's own ban on smoking in parks, on benches and other public areas has been adopted around the country, and definitely for the better.
In a TIME magazine editorial, Brownlee writes: "When I was a kid, Coca-Cola came in 6-ounce glass bottles, and that seemed like plenty. It wasn't all that long ago that a 12-ounce soda was considered perfectly sufficient — even large. But walk into any pizzeria or deli these days and you'll have a very hard time even finding 12-ounce cans of anything, as 20-ounce plastic bottles are now considered the standard single-serving size."
* President Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama are also on board with the proposal. On a recent episode of Piers Morgan, Clinton said, ""I think he's doing the right thing. For the first time, Type 2 diabetes is showing up in 9-year-olds, and among the baby boomers, who are retiring."
* For her part, Michelle Obama has stated that while she applauds Bloomberg for taking action against obesity, "this is not something the Administration is pursuing at a federal level and not something I'm specifically endorsing or condemning." Hmm, that from the nation's most prominent advocate against obesity in children?
* Arrecis, of the Naomi Berrie center, praises the spotlight this ban has put on making small changes (reducing portion sizes) that can have a big impact on health. "A big drastic change is typically not sustainable for people who are trying to eat healthier, so a small change can make a huge difference. Even if you reduce your portion by 20%, your brain doesn't realize you're eating less but the impact on your weight is significant."
* At the Friedman Diabetes Institute, Fendt has a suggestion: "It'll come down to putting pressure on the food companies themselves. It's hard to make a healthy choice when huge food portions and drinks are in front of people and it's so cheap. If (the vendors) join the mayor and the government and say, 'We would not provide them,' it would be better than banning them, which sometimes make people want them even more."
* Over at DiabeticConnect, more than 100 messages have been posted, with comments ranging from personal responsibility, to identifying the real cause of obesity, to potential for bans on things like video games and television.
One member, Caroltoo, writes, "Almost everyone has an idea why (certain suggestions) can't work, but few, if any, make constructive suggestions of what could work. So we are in a stalemate."
The Portions vs. Exercise Discussion
We live in an incredibly unhealthy culture. In 2010, there were more than 460 Dunkin Donuts stores and more than 250 Starbucks branches in NYC, plus the lack of time and resources for exercise can be extremely prohibitive (commutes are the longest in NYC compared to the rest of the country, and gym memberships average $100 a month). I wasn't sure how successful banning soda in excess of 16 oz at McDonalds would be (have you looked at their menu lately?), but it's common for folks to only think about calories in food they eat — but not what they drink!
So although this proposal is getting a lot of push-back, and it probably won't even pass, it is bringing up another crucial point about diet and exercise: It's much easier to avoid consuming calories than to try burning it off later. — IMHO
"I know that a lot of people are countering the idea of the soda ban by encouraging people to move more, but a 20 ounce soft drink, which is a typical size, is 240 calories," Fendt says. "You'd need to do jumping jacks for an hour straight to burn off those calories. It's much simpler to not have the soda bottle in the first place, rather than having to devote a whole hour of intense exercise after the fact."
If that's the case, then it would seem that a soda ban on super-sized drinks has the potential to at least discourage folks from consuming more calories than they could possibly burn. But it's also clear that more involvement from the food corporations and more investment in encouraging personal responsibility is really what is going to make a difference. Are we on the verge of healthy portions revolution?
Only time will tell.
The New York City Department of Health has three months to make their decision about this ban... We'll keep you posted.