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Big Gulps are Out, Starch is In

In the Big Apple the Big Gulp is out, and I think that’s a bad idea. However, my good friend “My Bariatric Life,” who writes about obesity for HealthCentral.com, says that for her “Big Gulps are Out, and That’s Ok by Me.”

I hope that you will read both my take and hers on this big issue. We remain friends, while the national war on sweeteners has begun.

Throughout America starch is still in. We eat a colossal amount of corn. Potatoes are plentiful. And bagels are bigger than ever.

“Seeking to reduce runaway obesity rates, “the New York City Board of Health last month approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants and concession stands.

Down with Big Gulps!

But is sipping sugar and high-fructose corn syrup why we Americans have so much trouble with our weight? Is this why more than two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight andmore than one-third are obese? Does this explain why 8.3 percent of Americans have diabetes?

Maybe both sugary drinks and starchy foods are making us fat.

I am no fan of beverages sweetened with sugar or HFCS. I haven’t had one to drink for more years than I can recall. Even sugar-free soda is something I rarely drink.

But I wonder if we are focusing our guns on too small a section of the target. We are using a laser where instead we might use a canon. Or holding our fire would probably make even more sense.

Some of the country’s most famous experts on nutrition, lead by Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, support Mayor Bloomberg’s ban. They lend their support while knowing that we don’t have scientific evidence showing that trying to put the breaks on our drinking big cups of soda will curb the obesity epidemic.

“From this position, it’s easy to rationalize government intervention on the basis of less-than-perfect scientific evidence, “writes Trevor Butterworth in The Awl. “‘Good enough’ is good enough if you’re facing a massive problem.”

But “good enough” can be disastrous when governments make nutrition policy. We’ve been there and we still suffer from it.

In 1977 the United States Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs issued a set of nutrition guidelines for Americans that encouraged us to eat less fat, less cholesterol, less refined and processed sugars, and more complex carbohydrates. Published as Dietary Goals for the United States, these guidelines are also known as the McGovern Report, after the committee’s chairperson, Senator George McGovern, who died Sunday.

More than any other single event, these guidelines set in motion our obesity epidemic. Excepting sugar, these guidelines were wrong in every one of these recommendations, as Gary Taubes persuasively argues in Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Focusing on sugar-sweetened sodas misses the big picture of sugar, HFCS, and starch, all of which contribute to the obesity epidemic. More and more experts on obesity, like Dr. Richard Johnson of the University of Colorado, are enlarging their area of concern from fructose to sugar to carbohydrates in general.

Telling free people what they can eat or drink or smoke doesn’t work. Prohibition doesn’t work whether it is alcohol, drugs, or junk food. We tried to prohibit alcohol between 1920 and 1933, but millions of Americans found a way to sidestep the law, and the side effects included more crime. We still ban recreational drugs and have yet more crime and criminals. Sidestepping the law against Big Gulps will be even easier.

“I don’t understand all the hassle about drink sizes,” my friend Gretchen Becker points out. “If you want a huge drink, nothing is stopping you from buying two smaller drinks.”

My most serious objection to New York City’s ban on super-sized sugary drinks is that it could be a slippery slope to greater government oversight on our private lives. Pastor Martin Niemöller said it best:

First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Far-fetched? From a simple ban on how much junk food we can buy at one time to the arrests of a few socialists? Pastor Niemöller thought that their arrests didn’t have anything to do with him. But he changed his mind after he barely survived seven years in Sahsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • D. Ainsworth at

    Interesting to see this discussion. but David – what do you have to say to the research that was highlighted this week about the dangers of diet soft drinks? I had heard this earlier, but it seems pretty clear that diabetics should NOT have sugar substitutes. . .

    • David Mendosa at

      Dear David,

      All of the studies showing the purported dangers of diet soft drinks show only correlation — not cause and effect. They are indicative but do not prove anything. They don’t show a mechanism of action, that is they don’t show how this could work. Beyond this, “diet soft drinks” is too broad a term. It includes a huge number of beverages sweetened with everything from aspartame to stevia and some containing carmel coloring and some not. Maybe some of these ingredients are dangerous, and I do have my suspicions of aspartame and carmel coloring. I have looked at all the studies I can find about non-caloric sweeteners, and the most and best that I can find don’t even show a correlation between consuming non-caloric sweeteners and weight, much less with diabetes. That said, I personally drink only one or two bottles of diet soda (and no sugar- or HFCS-sweetened soda) per year, because they don’t particularly interest me.