Drinking Healthy, Drinking Smart

Photos by redjar, rightee, poolie, sugar sweet sunshine: Flickr CC

Marion Nestle's post today on the importance of water fountains in schools echoes many of the remarks at the MIT "boot camp" she spoke at a bit over a week ago, where many of the speakers made clear that sugar is now in the sights of every food activist, and largely because of its effects on childhood obesity.

Vending machines in schools came in for the predictable amount of abuse, including in the form of polite, silent attention the seasoned health and science reporters gave a young nutritionist from Pepsi--one of the companies that in sites like these emphasizes its commitment to children's health while doing everything it can to keep its vending machines in public schools, which even before the economic crisis were becoming more and more dependent on their share of vending-machine profits.

Taxes on sugary drinks may inch and then vault up to reach cigarette levels.

Water is a subject dear to my heart, as about two years of research a decade ago made clear. More recently, I went to see Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea, at his headquarters in Chevy Chase. Goldman started his business with a strong commitment to sustainability, one he has maintained after his sale last year of 40 percent of his company to Coca-Cola. But vending machines in schools had been a frustration even in his children's public schools, he told me, admitting that even getting fruit juices in place of sugary sodas was a "Pyrrhic victory." Juices, many speakers reminded us, are just as bad for children's weight as sodas.

My own problem with sweet sodas was that they taste terrible, which had led me to Chevy Chase--I much preferred Goldman's lightly sweetened beverages to most commercially available, and, as I admitted, I not only love sugar, I live on it:

Even someone who ingests indecent quantities of sugar on a daily basis, as I do, understands that certain things can be too sweet. Specifically, sodas and other bottled drinks, which the nutrition realist Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and the new What to Eat, calls "liquid candy." Candy is one thing--especially good candy, which even Nestle, a founding member of what resentful hedonists and industry apologists call the "food police," endearingly admits to eating more often than she would like her readers to know. And I could hardly survive without my peculiar daily ration of leftover chocolate-spice frosting, which Maria's Pastry in the North End, Boston's Italian neighborhood, saves for me. Yet there's something intolerable about commercial sweetened drinks.

The problems of the speakers the other week were a lot more substantive--and, notably, they steered clear of the sucrose/high-fructose corn syrup debate I had written about, somewhat out of boredom, I thought, but mostly because their point was that sugar is sugar, and we're eating way too much of it, all over the world.

Particularly militant, and persuasive too, was Barry Popkin, UNC professor and general public-health activist and author of The World is Fat. One of his main points was that people naturally reduce their calorie intake if they eat higher-calorie foods in addition to their normal diet--that is, they notice it, including sugary junk foods like candy bars. But, perniciously and mysteriously, not when they consume those sweet calories in the form of sugary drinks. They don't feel satiety. Why? There's "tons of speculation," he said, but so far no definitive answers. But one clear need was to get rid of sodas in schools, and especially the drinks that come cloaked in health claims for children. "For me, Gatorade and sports drinks are the enemy," he said.

Water instead was also a clear and logical result, as the new German study Nestle mentions dramatically suggests. But for a while the nutrition world has been advocating the virtues of water in weight loss, as in a study in the journal Obesity of the help that water could provide people trying to lose weight:

Absolute and relative increases in drinking water were associated with significant loss of body weight and fat over time, independent of covariates.
The results suggest that drinking water may promote weight loss in overweight dieting women.

What's next? A movement you've started to see in New York state, and one being discussed in my own Massachusetts: taxes on sugary drinks that inch and then vault up to reach cigarette levels. Taxes, Popkin and others said, are the only real way to get people to change the way they eat--and, of course, are paradoxically even more necessary in a recession that makes people fill their stomachs, and comfort themselves, with the cheapest, sweetest calories they can find.