Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Should we ban sugary drinks?

Here's my most recent column from the Sunday Star Times. 

Sugary drinks have been all over the news lately. At a two-day symposium recently held to discuss their impact, we saw calls for sugar-sweetened drinks to be taxed and even banned altogether.

Where these were once dismissed as fringe demands from the fun police, and all anyone in government had to do was whisper the phrase ‘nanny state’ to shut down any debate, the pressure is mounting for a serious conversation to be had.

The FIZZ group is made up of researchers and public health doctors who’ve banded together because they believe sugar-sweetened drinks are a major contributor to poor health in New Zealand. They’re advocating for the phasing out of sugary drinks from New Zealand, pointing out many studies linking the intake of sugary drinks with obesity, type 2 diabetes, rotten teeth, gout and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease and premature death. They say “the tide of evidence which implicates sugary drinks with these common diseases is so strong now that ending the sales of these products is justified”. They liken sugary drinks to tobacco, and say similar strategies should be used to phase them out, including raising prices through taxes, restricting advertising and sales, and having ‘sugary drink free’ workplaces and public institutions.

Whether or not you believe that sugary drinks are addictive in the way that tobacco is – and the evidence does not seem to be quite there yet – it is hard to argue that anyone needs sugary drinks in their life. I find it very hard to see the harm in taxing something that really does no good at all in our food supply, and probably does harm. Yes, life is about personal responsibility, and we all have to take ownership of our own health. But sometimes we also have to think of the greater good. For people who don’t have the awareness, education or knowledge about healthy eating, couldn’t regulation be a nudge in a better direction? Right now there is a group of people out there who are drinking enough sugary drinks to do them a lot of harm.

If you are someone who can’t do without a sweet drink in your day, now could be the time to try and wean yourself off the liquid sugar. You might start by switching to a sugar-free variety of your favourite drink. Whatever you think about alternative sweeteners, most experts agree these are a better option, even as an interim step. There are more and more drinks now available sweetened with the ‘natural’ sweetener, stevia, and these are also worth a try. 

They won’t, however, take away the craving for a sweet taste. Only gradually reducing the sugar in your life will do that. It takes time, but it is do-able. Just as with salty tastes, our taste buds gradually adapt to less sweet tastes when we cut down. If you can get to a place where you choose a nutrient-dense piece of naturally sweet fruit instead of an energy-dense, nutrient poor sugary drink, you’ll definitely be on the right track.

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