Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Another sugary drink freak-out

A couple weeks ago in my Program Planning class, we discussed whether people on food stamps should be prohibited from purchasing sugary sodas with their government assistance. I've included my thoughts on the matter below (based on our "thought paper"). I also thought it worth noting that NBC recently reported that EVERYONE who drinks sugary soda, even if they're not dethfatz, is going to die because of their bad dietary choices (see link here).

Personally, I love how the article seems so incredulous about the fact that even skinny people can die from heart disease. What, it's not just for fat people? Who knew?

This just proves that we don't have a handle on the risk factors for heart disease, despite our scientific clamor to blame the fats. I particularly love this line:
All the more reason why women might want to be careful with a soda habit, Coulter said. "The message is that women have smaller frames then men, and therefore need more calorie restriction," she said.
I love it when people tell me to restrict my intake. Not.

Furthermore, I'm consistently irritated by the fact that we focus so much on chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, etc., when those are simply the major killers of OLD PEOPLE. Wanna know what causes our nation's youth to kick the bucket? Accidents. Trauma. Tragic injuries. And by young, I mean under 35. Car crashes? Yep, they kill a ton of people. More people than heart disease. But you don't see public health officials jumping on the auto safety bandwagon with nearly the enthusiasm that they attack our food/beverage/drug consumption.

Should it be illegal for people on government assistance to drive cars? Those are far, far more dangerous than sugary sodas. You have the potential to kill someone else with that mobile death trap. Soda? C'mon, guys. I know it's not a popular viewpoint, but I have to believe that we have bigger fish to fry. Educate people about the risks of drinking these beverages, and then leave them the hell alone to eat what they want. That's what adults do, anyway.


Thought paper: Should people on food stamps be able to purchase sugary drinks with their government aid money?
Restricting access to any kind of food makes me instinctively bristle. Who am I, even as a public health professional, to dictate what people consume? My job is to make sure that people are informed about risks so they can make the decisions that suit them. Limiting food choice, even by restricting sodas, seems to be an overly paternalistic attitude that contradicts the very fiber of the American spirit.
I once dated a young man who was Type I diabetic. I always thought sugary sodas were so bad and that they didn’t have any place in anyone’s diet. That all changed when I realized that Sean could avoid a serious medical problem by simply drinking a sugary soda or eating a candy bar. He had very brittle diabetes, and without candy and soda, he would have sustained a significant amount of damage to his body. Soda saved him from diabetic emergencies more than once during our relationship. In fact, he would have cost the health system more if he wasn’t allowed to consume soda because he would have been hospitalized more frequently.
Our job as health professionals is not to hand down edicts from ivory towers, but rather to compassionately educate. The people who are purchasing the soda are presumably adults; it’s their prerogative to consume what they want. They might need soda for their physical health (like my ex-boyfriend), or they might need soda for their mental health (it tastes delicious and makes them feel good). We have done our job as public health professionals if we teach adults to engage in healthy, moderate diets that allow for “sometimes” foods like carbonated sugar water. You can get fat from eating too many hamburgers, but you can also get fat from eating too much free-range chicken or low-fat milk or peanuts. You can also, strangely, benefit from soda in your diet, depending upon who you are. (Here’s another “it depends” … you just can’t seem to escape them in public health).
Consequently, I also don’t believe that we should deny public assistance to people who test positive for drugs. Rather, we should provide them with viable alternatives to drug use. We should give them compassionate care that fits their situation. I sincerely doubt that the junkie down the street says, “Oh, well, my social worker and that public health lady over there say I should stop doing drugs, so I’m cured! Hallelujah!” Depriving these people of the resources they need is just flat-out inhumane.
Who do you think the neediest people are? I’d assert that many of them are substance abusers or even (gasp) people who drink soda. When we look down from our perspective of privilege, throw patronizing policies at them, and chastise them as though they were children, we completely discount their experiences. “We know better than you!” we say, and we wonder why these populations don’t trust our opinions or recommendations. Frankly, I don’t know better than them. I don’t know what it must be like to try to kick a meth habit and rely on public assistance to eat. I don’t know what it would be like to be diabetic, lack access to juices, and be unable to get candy or soda for my health. The best thing we can do as public health workers is to provide people with the opportunities to make the best choices for themselves. They’re adults, and this isn’t the novel 1984. As Ragen Chastain said a couple weeks ago, “I’m the boss of my own underpants, and you’re the boss of yours.” That’s a policy I can get behind (pun intended).


  1. Great framing of the issue--a feminist philosopher--Nancy Tuana said that what we attend to tells us much--the fact we attend to sugary drinks and not driving is important. The former entails no tough choices but self-righteous shaming. The latter might actually require serious political and social change.

  2. Thanks so much! (a) I'm happy that you're reading our blog, and (b) I'm totally going to read Dr. Tuana's work. "Self-righteous shaming" is a great way of phrasing the issue.