This Thursday, May 31, 2012 photo shows a display of various size soft drink cups next to stacks of sugar cubes at a news conference at New York's City Hall. Research greatly strengthens the case against soda and other sugary drinks as culprits in the obesity epidemic. (Richard Drew/AP)

This is the time of the year when we make resolutions. We promise ourselves we’ll pay off that credit card debt or be a better correspondent or keep a tidier home. But given the effect of the national obesity epidemic, it’s not surprising that the most common of them all has to do with the battle of the bulge. No more junk food. Lose 20 pounds. Work out more.

Of the astonishing 35.7 percent of American adults who are obese, many suffer from related diseases: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, even some kinds of cancer.

Perhaps most disturbing is that the number of overweight children has tripled since 1980: About 17 percent of American kids (ages 2 to 19) are obese.

Unless something is done, many of those children will grow up to be obese adults.

We ban unsafe cribs and scrutinize toys for safety. Why not help children and their parents make better choices about food?

That’s why recent news of small declines in childhood obesity rates has come as a ray of hope after years of gloomy studies about the lack of progress in the fight against fat.

A study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports a 1.8 percent drop in the number of pre-school kids (2- to 4-years-old) who are overweight.

This comes on the heels of a Sept. 2012 survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which reported that following peaks in the early 2000s, some cities and states have observed modest declines in rates of childhood obesity.

Though the declines have been small and poor and minority children have been less affected than whites, Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City’s Health Commissioner, told The New York Times, “It’s been nothing but bad news for 30 years so the fact that we have any good news is a big story.”

Perhaps most encouraging of the new data is that declining rates of childhood obesity have shown up in cities where there has been a concerted effort to teach kids about the benefits of healthy eating.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been out front on diet and health issues. In 2007 he helped implement restrictions on the use of trans fats in bakeries and fast food restaurants. Last summer he pushed through a ban on those huge 32-ounce containers of sugary drinks, so beloved by movie fans. That prohibition will take effect in March.

Certainly not everyone supports his vision. His actions have drawn much criticism — and have made him a frequent butt of light night mockery. As Jon Stewart put it, the soda ban “combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect.”

But obesity is no laughing matter. As for the lack of results, a study of the trans fat ban showed it is working and few restaurant customers have noticed or complained about it.

In Boston where 32 percent of the city’s public schools students are overweight, Mayor Tom Menino hasn’t been quite as bold as Bloomberg but he has also taken significant steps to separate kids from the soft drinks they love.

In 2004, Boston banned soda and junk food machines from city public schools. Two years later schools had observed a “significant decrease” in consumption. In 2011, Menino issued an executive order designed to stop the sale, advertising or promotion of sugary drinks on city property within six months.

Critics call these initiatives “nanny government” but when we taxpayers have to pay for the unhealthful habits of the growing numbers of obese Americans, isn’t it a good idea to make it a little harder for children to get their hands on food that will make them sick?

Obesity remains a serious and costly epidemic. If the country is ever going to get its health care costs under control, these are the people government has to reach. We ban unsafe cribs and scrutinize toys for safety. Why not help children and their parents make better choices about food?


Tags: Boston

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  • Gan

    As someone who struggled with my weight for much of my teenage years, I can say that getting – and staying – in shape requires a total overhaul of your habits and beliefs. In order to cut out soda and other sugary drinks, one must learn about and actually believe in their fat-packing affects on your body. Here’s one piece of advice for people trying to lose weight: don’t drink calories. Eat them, instead. If you’re drinking calories on a regular basis, be it alcohol, juice or soda, you’re probably carrying excess weight.

  • The Onceler

    In reading this article, I saw the phrase “soda and sugary drinks as the culprits”. Am I the only person to find such language reprehensible? When discussing the topic of drunk driving, should we also speak of alcohol as the culprit? Shouldn’t we rather speak of the person who drinks the soda or alcohol as the culprit? If we blame the inanimate object, then haven’t we also absolved the people of any responsibility? How is that a good idea?

    • massappeal

      Good questions, but not necessarily. It’s possible to, for example, teach children the importance of a healthy diet *and* demonstrate that the school takes the importance of a healthy diet seriously by not making soda and candy easily available.

      Just as it’s possible to hold drunk drivers accountable for their actions while also holding accountable those who provide alcohol to individuals who are already drunk (and therefore have impaired judgment).

      • Steven Pierce

        Massa has it right this is an education issue. It is also a cost issue. It costs more to buy a 16 oz. water than 16oz coke where is the sense in this. You once were able to visit a local farm and buy produce, milk, eggs whatever the farmer grew. Land taxation, FDA regulation enacted by industrial farming groups, lobby regulation and special interest have resulted in poor food quality, poor food choices with out of control prices for healthy choices.

        Cheap poor quality, highly processed ingredients and unregulated mega
        industries are the cause of this issue but we instead blame the device rather than what the real cause of the issue happens to be.

  • davee44

    The problem is the food, this has been well established by science. The food today causes obesity and diabetes. Do not blame the people. The new years resolution to lose weight will fall See here

  • citizenkane

    Wish I could be more sanguine about this issue, but I fear that until we can find answers to the seemingly irresoluble problems of parental absence (actual and virtual) and latchkey kids, any victory is likely to be marginal if not pyrrhic.

  • Stephani Shelton

    Any way we as individuals or as school and public officials can move toward a healthier society is worth trying. If you look at the obesity epidemic only in term of health and medical costs – it is obvious that encouraging or even mandating healthier living (better eating habits along with regular exercise) is a logical way to cut the out-of-control health care costs here in the US as well as in other developed countries. Which is better? Paying more and more to treat preventable illnesses? Or building healthier habits from childhood by any means possible? And I am not even dealing here with the human costs of obesity and just being overweight.

    • Steven Pierce

      Yes no matter what the cost in personal freedom.