The long-term effects of soft drink consumption in children.
While waiting for service at my ‘go-to’ auto-repair garage, there was a husband and wife team that had a, let’s say, four-years-old daughter in tow. Mom, a large, young woman, gave daughter several drinks of her canned soft drink. The little girl was stout. Meanwhile, dad, also large, was seated across the waiting room, with a red-liquid, high-caffeine soft drink bottle, sticking out if his hoodie pocket. Close at hand for a fast drink when needed, I surmised.
While I am not necessarily saying that consumption of sugary soft drinks is a leading cause of obesity in adults, I am deriding the decision of parents to permit children access to those same soft drinks. You may rightly ask, “But Bob, what’s the big deal with soft drinks?” Or say, “What a reactionary.” I believe the answer to the first is, “Everything.”
The food industry — soft drink purveyors in particular — cares not a whit about the health of its customers, regardless of age. A small handful of bottlers supply us dozens of brands, styles (‘diet’ or not, colored or clear, etc.) and unlimited quantities of soft drinks. Every eatery from fast-food chains to three-star restaurants offer a wide variety of variations on the theme: water, sugar (and/or artificial sweetener) flavors and colorants, along with enough carbonation to make them interesting. Isle shelves and great expanses of floor and cooler space in every convenience and grocery store is devoted to them. The soft drink folk also spend untold fortunes marketing product, including sponsorship of portions of the Super Bowl for the last 52 years. I don’t have to use a single brand name or tag line, because they are already (and permanently) imprinted in the world culture.
While I will make no pretense of having any particular medical training, I believe the words of the pediatricians I know who unequivocally condemn serving soft drinks to children. Aside from the empty calories of sugar-rich soft drinks, the bodies of children are not just downsized adults. They are different, developing creatures. While as an adult, I can over consume soft drinks and pay for it by gaining weight and increasing my chances for Type II diabetes, in children there are endocrine impacts that are likely irreversible. One of my pediatric-physician friends has a raft of ‘younger-than-teen-agers’ patients with adult-onset style diabetes. While overall diet and exercise certainly play a part in the malady, the consumption of soft drinks clenches the deal.
M y small state usually ranks 49th or 50th (i.e., dead last or nearly so) in the nation on most health measures. I have been part of an initiative, Try This! West Virginia, since its inception. The organization encourages healthful eating, attention and access to beneficial activity, and all the things to promote improved health for all age groups. One of my joys is working with KEYS 4 Healthy Kids and West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, organizations that continue the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ work of reducing childhood obesity and making high-quality foods accessible to kids.
Now, back to beverages for kids. It’s not rocket science. Water and milk (and not sweetened chocolate milk) should be the only choices offered to our kids, particularly to infants and toddlers. Those same choices need also to continue into public-school cafeterias. What about fruit juices? Even the 100% juices concentrate the natural sugars and remove the rest of the fruit that could be considered to be ‘nutritious’. As one spokesperson for the KEYS group puts it, “Eat your fruit, don’t drink it.” To this day, I regret that we gave unlimited access to orange juice, apple juice, grape juice and all the rest to our now twenty-something daughter when she was young. I hope we didn’t unknowingly help set her up for diabetes. Fortunately, most public school systems are taking steps to remove (or have removed) vending machines and limit beverage selection to more-healthful choices. Kudos to them.
O n the other hand, I was only lucky that soft drinks were a rare treat when I was a kid, more than a half-century ago. I frankly never cared for soft drinks and have no regrets with that. When I worked a year recently at a retail dollar store, I was aghast with the mothers who filled and pushed not one, but usually two standard shopping carts filled to capacity with soft drinks, 10% ‘fruit-flavored’ drinks, highly-processed microwave foods and lots of cookies and candy for the kids. I understand that healthful foods are much more expensive than the offerings of many dollar stores, but a lack of understanding of the horrendous impacts on children is unforgivable in this society.
A s an educator and a community activist, it is imperative for me to help get the word out, as unpopular as it may be. We are doing great harm to our youngest citizens by supplying soft drinks to them. We must end this harmful and shameful practice, or else our children and grandchildren may not outlive us.