NEW YORK -- The era of the supersized cola may come to an end today in New York City, as health officials are expected to approve an unprecedented 16-ounce limit on sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, delis and movie theaters. But will it actually translate into better health?
Doctors and nutrition experts said the regulation's success or failure may depend on more than just the modest number of calories it might slash from people's diets. It will hinge on whether the first-in-the-nation rule starts a conversation that changes attitudes toward overeating.
"Ultimately, it does come down to culture, and it comes down to taking some first steps," said Jeffrey Mechanick, a Mount Sinai School of Medicine professor who has studied the effect of government regulation on the obesity epidemic. "There are so many factors that are acting in this complex disease. Obesity is not just a disease simply of people drinking too much sugary soft drink," he said. "Just attacking one thing, individually, isn't going to do much."
But if the rule is part of a broader social and scientific assault on the dangers of too much sugar, he said, it could be tremendously effective. He likened it to the drumbeat about the dangers of smoking, which took decades to translate into results.
By restricting portion sizes for sugary beverages, New York City health officials say they are taking on one of the leading culprits in the national fat problem. Since the mid-1970s, Americans have increased their daily intake by 200 to 300 calories while getting less exercise -- a couch-potato lifestyle that has left the nation with epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes.
While plenty of foods contribute to the problem, some experts believe that soft drinks deserve a greater share of the blame, in part because the body doesn't scream, "I'm full!" when someone downs a 32-ounce soda, even though it has more calories than a typical fast-food cheeseburger. The standard soda has gone from a 12-ounce can in the 1980s to a 20-ounce bottle today.
The math behind the ban is simple: A 16-ounce Coke has 200 calories. A 20-ounce Coke has 240 calories, or about 30 more than a Hershey bar.
If you drink a soda per day -- as do 46 percent of Bronx residents, according to one recent Health Department survey -- choosing the 16-ounce bottle rather than the 20-ounce would save you 14,600 calories a year, or the equivalent of 70 Hershey bars. That is enough to add about four pounds of fat to a person's body. To burn off those extra calories, an average-size woman would have to walk about 340 miles.