Soda’s Down, But Obesity’s Up. What Gives?

Childhood Obesity 2-5We have a bit of good news and a bit of bad news in the soda-obesity war this week. The good news is that soda’s down. A new paper just published online in Obesity confirms what the industry has been saying for several years now. People are drinking less soda. In fact, they’re drinking less of all sugar-sweetened beverages.

But the bad news is that obesity keeps going up anyway.

An Elusive Victory

Sara Bleich and colleagues analyzed trends in self-reported beverage consumption across all age groups, based upon NHANES data. They found people are drinking more water. Also, they found that younger children are drinking more milk than sugar-sweetened beverages.

But perhaps most significantly, they found a big drop in the percentage of the youngest kids (2-5 years old) drinking sugary beverages. That number dropped from 70% to 47% between 2003 and 2014. This looks like a victory to the authors, who wrote:

The overall declines in beverage calories may help to explain the leveling of obesity in the general population and reductions among young children ages 2 to 5 years.

There’s just one problem. Obesity prevalence has not leveled. The latest CDC data says that it’s reached a new high – 39.6% among adults. Nor is it accurate to claim reductions for young children. As the chart above shows, the latest reading shows prevalence continues to grow for young children, too.

Bleich et al submitted their paper in June, before the latest data emerged. So their comments reflect the wishful thinking prevalent before CDC published new data in October.

Maybe Killing Big Soda Won’t Stop Obesity

Sadly, this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. Consumption of sugary drinks has been declining since the turn of the century. That might be a good thing. But it’s probably not the final answer for reversing the excess of obesity.

Real solutions will take more probative research and a willingness to challenge presumptions. If you poke around in obesity-related policy proposals, you will find untested presumptions everywhere.

This problem is important. It’s too important to rely on hunches and wishes. We need real science asking hard questions and testing presumptions. Endless fights about soda taxes won’t do the trick.

Click here for the study from Bleich et al and here for more from Medscape. For further perspective on declining sugar consumption, click here and here.

Soda, photograph © Andre Roberto Doreto Santos/ flickr

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November 16, 2017

One Response to “Soda’s Down, But Obesity’s Up. What Gives?”

  1. November 16, 2017 at 6:14 pm, David Brown said:

    For what it’s worth, I think there are two reasons why the obesity epidemic persists. First, we humans tend to repeat pleasurable experiences to excess when enabled to do so. Plato characterized eating as a necessary pleasure. Prior to the invention of a technique for converting nitrogen in the air into ammonia, agricultural production was limited by the amount of nitrogen available in nature. In 1909, however, German scientist Fritz Haber invented a process that eventually allowed man to generate unlimited quantities of ammonia from the air we breathe. Now farmers can furnish us with unlimited quantities of food. What do we tend to do with limitless food? We overeat. Of course, not all of us get fat when we overeat. Primate obesity researchers found that low-fat diets emphasizing carbohydrates effectively fattened monkeys who would consume twice as many calories on an American Heart Association recommended diet as compared to the usual primate fare. Still, as noted in this article, 40% of the animals did not get fat.
    Researcher comment: Barbara C. Hansen of the University of South Florida said calories, but not high fat, were important. “To suggest that humans and monkeys get fat because of a high-fat diet is not a good suggestion,” she said.

    That’s the other reason why no government public health entity has been able to reverse the obesity epidemic: bad dietary advice. Current nutritional dogma tells the public that saturated fat intake should be limited and polyunsaturated fat intake increased. This recommendation is based on population studies and scientific experiments that suggest a modest reduction in heart disease risk when saturated fats are replaced with polyunsaturated oils. Scientists conducting similar experiments have also observed a modest improvement in metabolic markers. The thing is, reversing the experiment by reducing omega-6 polyunsaturated intake to historical levels of around 1% of energy consumption hasn’t been attempted with humans. With mice, the results are dramatic.

    What we have, then, is a dispute between the biochemists who say too much omega-6 in the food supply is problematic and the epidemiologists who shape dietary advice and who say people should consume more omega-6.

    As for saturated fat: