TCS Daily

What Does a Body Good?

By Radley Balko - September 20, 2004 12:00 AM

The debate over obesity triggers all sorts of odd confrontations, contradictions, and alliances. One of the more interesting discussions to emerge of late involves soda and dairy, and which of either is or isn't contributing to the obesity problem. It's interesting not because of either side's arguments, which are typical, but because of the way dueling allegiances and media hysteria over obesity have fought for the loyalties of politicians.

The most recent contribution to the obesity debate comes from the Journal of the American Medical Association, which purported to link soda consumption to weight gain and risk for diabetes, though the study's conclusion -- that women who switched from drinking one or fewer sodas per week to one or more per day would gain weight -- is hardly earth-shattering. Adding 150 calories per day of anything to a standard diet will on average amount to about a pound-and-a-half of weight gain per month. The study in question took place over the course of four years.

The JAMA study also does little to link soda consumption to the obesity problem. As George Mason University professor Todd Zywicki shows in this graph, over the same period obesity prevalence has allegedly taken off, soda consumption has remained relatively stable. In fact, the only beverage we seem to be buying more of in the last 15 or so years is bottled water, which has no calories. Sales have nearly quadrupled.

Nevertheless, demonizing Big Soda has proved to generate headlines for nutrition activists and anti-corporatists.

It's also been a boon for the dairy industry. The makers of whole milk, heavy cream, cheese, and sour cream and their advocates in Congress have of late been making the case that not only is soda bad for you, but that an extra serving or two of dairy in its stead could help put a dent in the obesity problem. The theory, propagated by dairy state Senators Patrick Leahy, Jim Jeffords, and Tom Harkin -- among others -- is that kids today drink too much soda. Where they once drank a glass of milk with dinner, they now grab a Vanilla Coke from the school vending machine. Buoyed by a few studies showing that calcium from dairy products may mitigate childhood obesity, dairy interests have gone on the offensive, advocating policies restricting soda content in school vending machines, school lunches, and even proposing taxes on sugary sodas and restrictions on marketing soda to children. Dairy state senators have sponsored legislation requiring public schools to make dairy more available in school lunches and vending machines (it's already the only food group that schools are required to serve with every meal), even while simultaneously sponsoring legislation that would make dairy more expensive for those same schools and kids by way of a national price supports scheme.

This, while Congressional demands for better nutrition already have cash-strapped public schools in a bind. In Chicago, the cost of milk hit an all-time high just as school began this fall, up 40 percent from its cost just a year ago. The Chicago Sun-Times quotes one school district official lamenting that while average food costs rise about 3 percent each year due to inflation, dairy costs have jumped 27 percent. Some schools have passed the cost on to the kids, others have absorbed it themselves, at the expense of other school programs.

The odd thing about all of this is that there's little evidence that kids actually are substituting soda for dairy. According to the American Dairy Association and the Dairy Council, annual milk consumption of children 6 to 12 years of age is at its highest level in 10 years.[i] A Michigan State University study showed that milk consumption among children remained constant from 1987 to 1997, a period in which America's childhood obesity problem is supposed to have taken off.[ii] Another study by the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found no link between calcium intake and soft drink consumption, and in fact found that the demographic group that drinks the most soda (white teenage boys) also come closest to taking in its recommended allowance of calcium.[iii] Other studies have shown a positive (though very small) correlation between calcium intake and soda consumption.[iv] And still other studies show that vending machines aren't nearly as prominent a part of the school-age diet as they're depicted. One study of USDA data from 1977 through 1998 showed that vending machines in all locations -- not merely schools -- represent just 4.1% of total soft drink consumption among kids aged 6 to 17. Another study from 2000-2001 data showed that just one in five high school students use school vending machines, and among them, just 9 percent consumed soft drinks. Even among that group, average consumption was a little more than one can per week.[v]

This isn't to say that soda is or isn't better than milk and dairy, or even that either is or isn't a major contributor to childhood obesity. There's abundant literature to support the position of every interest group with a dog in the obesity fight. Even within the community of nutrition activists and anti-fat warriors -- all of whom seem to loathe soda -- there's contention about the role of milk in the obesity problem, and how much dairy we can (or should) consume as part of a healthy diet.

But the milk-soda face-off does show us that when lawmakers and activists invoke the obesity problem to push legislation regulating, taxing, or otherwise restricting our choices as food consumers, the healthiest thing we can do is exercise some skepticism. It's probably of no coincidence that dairy state senators insist that our kids need more dairy, and are willing to meddle with the schools to make sure they get it. Government agents aren't benevolent, they're self-interested -- even when they claim to be legislating to improve our health, or on behalf of chubby children. Such is why after twenty-five years of trying, the USDA still can't seem to get the food pyramid right. Shouldn't we be just a little unnerved that our government has been giving us bad information about diet for the last quarter century? Why should we believe the latest pyramid carnation is any more accurate? And why is the agency in charge of promoting U.S. agriculture also charged with telling us what we should eat? Seems like the USDA would have an interest in telling us to eat what's in the best interest of U.S. agriculture.

Perhaps the real lesson here is that government ought to stay out of the obesity fight altogether. Choosing what we eat each day is not only an intimate and personal decision, it's a very important one, with obvious repercussions on our health and happiness. Guidance and influence for those decisions should probably come from parties whose main interest is our health -- our doctors, for example. Policymakers may claim to be legislating for our well-being, but their primary interest lies with the constituents who elect them, and with the interest groups who keep them in power. We should be wary of government attempts to influence those decisions, and we should be intolerant of efforts to restrict them through taxes, regulation, or outright prohibition.

A better route would be to allow Americans to freely make their own decisions about what they eat, but also be sure that they and only they bear the consequences of those decisions.

[i] Phillips D. "Changing tide for Milk." Dairy Foods, February 2004.

[ii] Lytle L, Seifert S, Greenstein J, McGovern P. "How do children's eating patterns and food choices change over time? Results from a cohort study." Am J Health Promotion. 2000; 14:222-228.

[iii] Story ML, Forshee RA, Anderson PA. "Associations of adequate intake of calcium with diet, beverage consumption, and demographic characteristics among children and adolescents." J Amer Coll Nutr. 2004; 23:18-33.

[iv] Forshee R, Smith PA, Storey ML. Relationship between calcium intake and soft drink consumption among teens. Experimental Biology 2000.

[v] Ginevan M. Soft drinks and obesity, letter. J Pediatrics. 2004; 144:554.


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