Sugary drinks are a health hazard

FAT TAX? Sugary drinks are seen as a culprit in rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.
FAT TAX? Sugary drinks are seen as a culprit in rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.

I hope the Nelson City Council will go ahead with its proposed ban on the sale and consumption of sugary drinks on their premises and at their events (Nelson Mail June 6).

There are so many good reasons for a ban that it seems an obvious step to take.

We are, as a people, getting bigger and bigger and the frightening thing is that our concept of ‘normal' is getting bigger too. In other words, obesity is becoming normalised.

And yet, despite this, reminders that bigger bodies are a relatively recent development are all around us. Attempting to take my seat in the Theatre Royal a couple of weeks ago, I realised that about a third of it was taken up by my neighbour.

The two of us spent the whole show sweatily joined at the hip and thigh, an intimacy neither of us sought. I'm not trying to sound superior here either - I needed the whole of my seat for my own rather generous derriere.

But with obesity comes all sorts of health problems. This is no longer the subject of debate. And yes, fitness can mitigate the effects of excess weight, but only to a degree.

It's the overweight and obese children that make me the saddest. Their peers don't see the need for tact in their presence.

They struggle to get around, their thighs rubbing uncomfortably together. Their lunch boxes are the focus of their classmates' mockery; they are always picked last in teams, embarrassed in the school pool and often reduced to skulking in the library. And this is not just "puppy fat"; the degree of excess flesh they carry is almost at the level of a physical disability.

Banning sugary drinks is, of course, only the start of changing bad eating habits. Experts such as Boyd Swinburn, professor of global health and nutrition at the university of Auckland and Jim Mann, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Otago, two men who really know about the effect our penchant for fast food and sugary drinks has on our bodies, say we need to look at our fat and salt intake as well.

It's hard for common-sense messages like this to be heard amongst all the noise about sugar being "pure, white and deadly". This is rubbish - it's the excessive intake of sugar that's the problem - 17 teaspoonsful in a 600ml bottle of soft drink is a lot of sugar when the recommended daily amount, according to WHO, is 25g, about five teaspoons. And, according to Mann, when sugar is dissolved in liquid, "the body doesn't think they're calories and it's full." (Dominion Post, March 15, 2014).

Sugary drinks are an obvious and well justified first target for health boards and councils who want to lead by example.

What about the arguments against a ban? Do they have any credibility?

Objections to a ban on sugary drinks are often based on the notion that the "nanny state" should not be allowed to interfere with our "freedom".

Apart from the misogyny inherent in making the term "nanny" a pejorative, here's the big problem with this point of view: the poor old "nanny" state will have to bear the cost of the heart disease, diabetes and tooth decay that result from the "freedom" to consume excessive amounts of foods high in sugar.

The anti-nanny state objectors sound a lot like spoilt children who expect to be allowed to do anything they like but demand that someone else cleans up the mess when it all turns to custard.

As a taxpayer, I'm always in favour of action that lowers my tax bill and supports the social contract citizens have with each other to behave responsibly.

Another objection is on the grounds of consistency. Food of all kinds contain sugar so why would we ban only sugary drinks?

Because there is plenty of evidence that this kind of drink is causing considerable harm, evidence that Dr Rob Beaglehole, principal dental officer for the NMDHB has assembled. He regularly sees the results of the harm caused by sugary drinks in his surgery on the rotting teeth of the region's children.

But we should be able to make our own choices, the objectors cry. We're in charge of our own destiny!

The underlying assumption here is that people make rational choices. But most of us are rationalising rather than rational - we can explain why we ate the whole packet of Timtams but we can't justify our actions nutritionally.

Food choices seem especially subject to irrational behaviour. For example, every Monday morning I make a "rational" decision about my food choices for the day based on my goal to lose a few kilos, and by morning tea time, I'm eating Jacqui's freshly baked apple and cinnamon muffins and adding butter. I never regret eating a morning tea muffin, but the decision to eat it is not a rational one.

What about education? There's been an awful lot of education about nutrition and healthy eating in my life time and we're still getting bigger. Clearly, education has not worked.

At the same time we are beset with increasing numbers of crazy ideas about nutrition to the point where most people are thoroughly confused about what and how they should eat.

But we shouldn't give up. Bodies like councils and district health boards must lead by example, basing their actions on good evidence and practicality, providing the support that we so evidently need to kick bad food habits.

And I like well-known food writer Michael Pollan's advice: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," explained, along with his insightful take on how the Western diet got us into this mess, in the entertaining and informative essay "Unhappy meals" (New York Times Magazine, 28/1/07,

The Nelson Mail