Soft drinks

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I have recently returned from a lecture stint in southern Ireland, where the recent ban on smoking in pubs, bars and restaurants was a hot topic of conversation. While I am generally resistant to the idea of Government’s interference in our personal habits, there is actually more than a whiff of evidence that forbidding smoking in public places may have benefits for smokers and non-smokers alike. For instance, a study published earlier this in the British Medical Journal found that just six months after the prohibition of smoking in public and work places in a town in the USA, heart attack hospital admissions dropped by 40 per cent. On health grounds at least, there’s an argument for sticking my liberal leanings in my pipe and smoking them.

Recent talk about the growing rates of childhood obesity in the UK got me wondering about the potential benefits of banning of specific foodstuffs in schools. Soft drinks have come up in this context, not least of all because their consumption appears to be a potentially potent risk factor for weight gain. One study, for instance, found that each additional daily serving (about 300 mls) of soft drink was associated with staggering 60 per cent increase in a child’s risk of obesity.

One reason why soft drinks may pile on the pounds concerns their sugar-charged nature, and their propensity to instigate outpourings of the hormone insulin form the pancreas. As I pointed out in my column last week, insulin has the capacity to predispose to the laying down of fat, and at the same time stalls the body’s fat-burning potential. Insulin can also drive blood sugar levels down to subnormal levels, which may stimulate the appetite and cause cravings for sweet treats such as chocolate, confectionery, and more soft drinks.

However, while several strands of evidence link soft drinks with obesity in children, what really counts is whether drinking less of these beverages does any good. To test this, British researchers subjected children aged 7 – 11 to a school-based educational programme designed to encourage them to consume less fizzy drinks. This programme led to an average reduction of soft drink consumption of 50 mls a day (compared to other children who went on to consume an average of 15 mls more of soft drink per day). Over the course of just one year, the incidence of obesity in children not subjected to the programme increased by 7.5 per cent. In comparison, the group who tempered their soft drink consumption saw a slight decrease in levels of obesity. It seems that even small reductions in soft drink consumption may reap big dividends in terms of weight loss in kids.

Of course a ban on the sale of soft drinks in schools does not necessarily assure that children will drink less of this stuff, but the likelihood is that this measure would be a big step in the right direction for a Government wanting to get tough on childhood obesity. Unfortunately, early responses from ministers on this matter have lacked bite. Rather than waiting for the politicians to act, some parents may feel compelled to take matters into their own hands through the appropriate lobbying of head teachers, school governors or PTAs. It may be that parent pressure will be the critical factor in getting soft drinks in schools canned.

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