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U of M obesity expert: Bloomberg’s plan to curb sugary drinks is ‘a drop in the sea’

Governmental actions like Bloomberg’s large-sugary-drinks ban is “moving us in the right direction,” Robert Jeffery said.

Under a new law proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all soft drinks over 16 ounces will be banned in restaurants and stores that fall under the jurisdiction of New York City.

The pushback against New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposed ban last week on super-sized (over 16 ounces) sugary drinks was fast and furious.

Many people quickly dubbed the mayor “Nanny Bloomberg” — or worse. At Forbes, for example, one headline asked the loaded question, “Bloomberg: Oppressor or Mary Poppins?” while another charged that the proposed ban would “eat away at our freedom and prosperity.”

A poll released Monday found that more than half (53 percent) of New Yorkers thought the ban was a bad idea. Although, frankly, given the amount of negative coverage of the proposal in the media (even Jon Stewart got into the act), the fact that 42 percent of New Yorkers said they supported the mayor on this issue seems pretty remarkable.

All about portion control

On Wednesday, I called Robert Jeffery, an epidemiologist and founder of the University of Minnesota Obesity Prevention Center, to see what he thought of the proposed ban. Jeffrey has conducted research on portion control, the concept that’s at the core of Bloomberg’s action. In a 2007 study, for example, Jeffery and his U of M colleagues found that people who were given large box lunches (and told they could eat whatever amount of it they wished) gained more weight after a month than those who were given smaller versions of the same lunch.

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“There’s very good data to show that portion size matters,” said Jeffery. “If you serve people large portion sizes, they will eat more — and they won’t compensate for it [by eating less] at other meals.”

In other words, whether we’re aware of it or not (and we’re usually not aware of it), we tend to eat what’s on our plate. And plate size has increased about 30 percent since the 1960s — right along with out waist size.

Furthermore, as a study published earlier this year reported, when we eat a serving of food on a large plate we think we’re eating less than if that same amount of food were served to us on a small plate.

It’s an optical illusion that encourages us to overeat.

Portion control may be even more difficult with sugary drinks. Not only are most of us unaware that soft drinks contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar per 12-ounce can, studies have also shown that we tend not to compensate for those calories by eating less at other times during the day.

“There’s pretty good data to indicate that people don’t control their liquid calories intake as well as their solid calorie intake,” said Jeffery.

A small gesture

So, what does Jeffery think of Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sugary drinks?

“I think it’s a good gesture,” he said. “But 16 ounces seems a little big to me.”

Yet even if the ban were to include 16-ounce servings of sugary drinks, Jeffery doubts whether it would make much of a dent in the burgeoning obesity rates in New York City — or anywhere else. “It’s one drop of water in the sea,” he said.

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Solving America’s obesity problem is going to require doing many things in addition to getting people to drink less sugary drinks — including increasing the tax on those drinks, Jeffery stressed.

“But I don’t see any political will to do that,” he said.

“I agree with the [recently aired HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation”] that this thing is so profound and so wide-reaching that it’s going to take something pretty big to do it,” he added. “And what it probably takes first of all is a recognition that we are all vulnerable to this, and we need to do things both individually and collectively to try and control it. To keep going down the mantra of free choices in everything is probably not the way to go.”

Governmental actions like Bloomberg’s large-sugary-drinks ban is “moving us in the right direction,” he said. “But whether they will take us anywhere fast enough to halt [the rising rates of obesity] is a big question.”