Equipping Texans to Decide How Many Sugary Drinks is Enough

This commentary first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

Something new is happening with soda and other sugary drinks.

Last month, leaders of the three major soda companies made an unprecedented pledge to reduce the sugary drink consumption of Americans 20 percent by 2025. And it’s not just the soda companies. The city of San Antonio recently realized that a balanced effort to address public health and obesity must include a sugary drinks strategy, so it’s developing a public awareness campaign on the subject.

Now that we know sugary drinks are a significant, unique and often silent contributor to obesity and Type 2 diabetes, the next state Legislature should support a public education campaign to help parents and other Texans who want to make healthier drink choices.

The idea is to do it the Texas way: give people the information they need to make informed choices, and then get out of their way and let them decide what to do.

People may be in for a few surprises about sugary drinks, especially when they learn the small amount it takes to start causing serious health problems.

For example, how many parents know that most juices contain as much sugar as soda, and that a child’s juice serving should be no more than four ounces, a third of a typical 12-ounce can? Or that just one sugary drink each day raises an adult’s risk of Type 2 diabetes by 26 percent?

Part of what makes sugary drinks unique in our obesity crisis is that they don’t make us feel full. We don’t receive that normal signal to stop. We usually don’t even include drinks when we’re evaluating the calories and nutritional value of our meals. If you ask a child to tell you what she ate for lunch, would she remember to include her drink in the answer? And herein lies the problem: a 32-ounce soda has more calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Soda is also unique because it’s a non-food. It has zero nutrients, as opposed to the unhealthy food that we might eat if we’re hungry but short on time or money.

While our culture is now full of messages about exercising and eating right, most people never hear a similar message about sugary drinks. Instead, these beverages are quite literally everywhere — school campuses, grocery checkouts, parks and school sporting events, to name a few. When they aren’t physically there, advertisements for them are — in schools, on television, on the Internet, and occasionally in the form of a school fundraiser encouraging kids to save their bottle caps to generate dollars for campuses.

It’s no wonder we’ve left behind the days when sugary drinks were an occasional treat and that a third of Texas kids now drink the equivalent of a 2-pound bag of sugar every single week.

Everyone has a role to play in confronting this challenge — individuals, families, communities, schools, businesses and state leaders. The Legislature has taken steps to tackle obesity by promoting exercise and nutritional food. Now it’s time to strengthen the state’s strategy by creating a scalable sugary drink public health campaign within the Department of State Health Services for communities that want to educate their residents about the risks of consuming too many sugary drinks.

Time will tell how serious the soda companies are about curbing excess consumption. But if they are speaking up on a key health issue for Texas kids and families, certainly our elected leaders can do so, too. It’s time we all do our part to ensure consumers are informed about the role sugary drinks play in their health and that Texas kids grow up free from a future of unnecessary chronic disease.

Lauren Dimitry is a health and fitness policy associate for Texans Care for Children.