I have never had a giant-size or super-size or Big Gulp size soda. In point of fact, I’ve had almost no regular (as in, non-diet) soda in my life, apart from a span between about age 12, when I suddenly decided I liked grape and orange soda or root beer, in cans served up out of garbage pails full of ice at family parties; and age 16-ish, which is when I switched to Tab. Lots of Tab, then Diet Coke. I don’t even drink much of that anymore, since my husband and I decided telling our kids “no soda” while pouring DC over ice at dinner time was sort of hypocritical. That, plus it’s pretty much poison.
But even back when I did drink soda, real soda, like, before there was such a thing as diet anything, or high-fructose corn syrup, soda came in those aforementioned cans – 12 ounces only. Sixteen-ounce bottles, 2-liter bottles, and Big Gulps didn’t exist. This is not news to anyone, I’m sure – the fact that since the nation’s corn growers got subsidized to grow more corn, more of it got turned into high fructose corn syrup, which had to be used for something, and one major something was, and still is, soda and other sweetened drinks. It’s devastating in part because it’s so cheap that selling more of it – bigger bottles, bigger cups, ever-more-absurd sizes – became like some sort of competition. Why buy a 12 ounce soda if it’s only a few cents more to buy the 32-ounce?
I bring this up because the mayor of my former city, New York, recently proposed banning giant-sized sodas from being sold in Gotham – at fast food joints, ballparks, movie theatres and more. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been hot for a while now to improve the health of his populace (bans on public smoking, bans on trans fats, a transformation of some formerly traffic-clogged stretches of Seventh Avenue and Broadway into pedestrian havens) and for that — for that urge — I applaud him.
But I’m of mixed emotions about the ban, in large part because getting rid of giant-sized servings of sweet drinks, if you want to get people healthy, is just the tip of the iceberg (as Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show the other night, you can still buy a mile-high pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli that’s essentially a heart attack on a plate). But my emotions remain mixed also because a ban is in some measure merely symbolic, or silly (or nanny-state-ish, though I’m loathe to go down that road; I don’t think, given the skyrocketing costs of healthcare, both in dollars and in lost productivity and shrinking competitiveness of our nation, that it should be out of the reach of government responsibility to try to keep people healthy as well as educated and informed. Seatbelts are the law, too, as are dire warnings on — and high taxes attached to — packs of cigarettes).
Because the thing is, as a nation, we are getting fat. There’s really no other nice way to say it.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the four-part HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation. As this topic is of interest to me generally, nothing reported in there was a big surprise to me, but it was still riveting. Twelve-year olds with what used to be called adult-onset diabetes? Kids who can barely run? That, to me, is a horror show. As is the very notion that we may well be raising the first generation in the history of this country whose life expectancy is lower than ours.
So yes, Mr. Bloomberg, sweet drinks are a big problem.
Put soda aside for a second; let’s talk Gatorade, another form of sugar-water-plus-food-coloring that has joined soda in replacing beverages such as water, or milk. Kids on both my sons’ soccer teams routinely bring a 20-ounce bottle of this stuff to practices and games. Not water; Gatorade. I was chatting with the mother of a second grader on my younger boy’s team; he’s a good player – aggressive, skilled. But he’s kind of on the chubby side. The mom told me it was something that concerned her, and her pediatrician. Then she told me “all he likes to drink is sweet iced tea.” That’s all he’ll drink?
Is that all that’s in the house? Is that possible? The child shows up for a game without a water bottle, and his dad pulls up later, probably after dropping one of their other sons off at his soccer game, having stopped at a deli to get the kid … Gatorade.
There’s an essential parental issue there that no ban on large-size sodas will fix.
If I bought Gatorade, guess what? My sons would gulp it down like the normal, sweet-obsessed children they are. I don’t buy it, precisely for that reason.
I’m not special; I don’t have a corner on any insider mother information here. To me, this is basic commonsense. My kid is running around on the field for an hour. Isn’t it obvious that what he needs is water?
So, back to Mayor Bloomberg. I’m still not convinced a ban is a good idea. But it has to be a start, even if it doesn’t pass, of a conversation – of someone saying, out loud, Who needs a 32-ounce soda? Because no one does. One thing the mayor said got me thinking, too; at first it would seem the ban is silly because you can get around it so easily: Want a lot of soda? You can still buy two of them! But what if, when you were out at a pizza place or a movie theatre and you saw the cups lined up near the soda fountain, you didn’t have the absurd size to choose from? (Anyone other than me remember the days of simple “small, medium or large”?) Would you order an appropriate size and call that enough?