Research finds NYC soda ban would cut 63 calories per fast food trip: Would that have any impact?
Whether that will add up over time to an actual health benefit remains up for discussion.
Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban caps a maximum size of 16 ounces for sugary drinks - sold in cups or bottles - at food establishments under the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's jurisdiction. That includes restaurants, fast food chains, delis, street carts and movie theaters. Drinks sold at grocery and convenience stores - including two-liter bottles and 7-11's "Big Gulp" fountain drinks - would be exempt from the ban.
New research led by Dr. Brian Elbel, an assistant professor of population health and health policy at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City, analyzed what impact Mayor Bloomberg's proposal would have on a typical consumer's calorie intake.
Elbel and fellow NYU researchers pooled data from two studies that included 1,624 sales receipts listing a non-milkshake beverage (dairy products are excluded from the proposed ban), which were collected from diners at three different fast-food restaurants in New York City, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia and Baltimore from 2008 to 2010. Their research is published in a correspondence to the editor in the July 23 online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Based on the receipts and corresponding survey information collected from the studies, the researchers determined that 62 percent of beverages bought at these restaurants would be over 16 ounces and subject to the mayor's new proposal. Elbel explained to HealthPop in an interview that if 100 percent of all fast food consumers switched to a 16-ounce drink from their previous order, the average consumer would take in 63 fewer calories per trip to a fast-food restaurant.
Elbel also determined if 100 percent of sugary drink purchasers alone switched to the smaller soda, the reduction may be as high as 74 calories per fast food trip.
However that's assuming nobody opts to purchase an additional 16-ounce beverage - people can buy as many as they like at these establishments under Bloomberg's proposal - which Elbel conceded may not be likely. His research found that if only 30 percent of consumers reduced their intake to a 16-ounce beverage, the decrease in calories would be negligible.
However If the mayor's proposal completely backfires and 80 percent of consumers opt to purchase two 16-ounce drinks, calorie intake from sugar-sweetened beverages would actually increase, the research found.
Elbel is set to present his findings during the first of three public hearings beginning Tuesday on the mayor's proposal.
Would a best-case scenario of 63 fewer calories per person per trip to a fast food restaurant really make a dent in a diner's health?
"I'd probably say no to that," said Nutritionist Karen Congro, director of the Wellness for Life Program at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City, in an interview with HealthPop. "But it might get them to think about where their calories are coming from."
Congro said calories are only "part of the problem" from drinking too much soda, and sugary drinks could affect how the body processes sugar, potentially leading to diabetes. But she doesn't feel a ban would do much to boost New Yorkers' health if they aren't educated on all the health risks. She said television ads and signs or brochures in places where drinks are sold might be more effective at helping people make better choices than simply eliminating a larger sized cup.
"If somebody doesn't know [the health risks], they'll just go out and buy two," she said.
The American Beverage Association, which has been campaigning against the proposal throughout New York City, reacted to the new research.
"A letter to the editor isn't an actual study, so commenting on an assertion with so many holes is difficult," Karen Hanretty, vice president of public affairs at the American Beverage Association, told HealthPop in an email. "However, 150 years of research finds that people consume what they want."
Elbel acknowledged his research had limitations, since it only looked at one scenario of sugary drink consumption at fast-food restaurants, while the mayor's ban would also impact diners at other New York City eateries.
He said even if the soda ban reduced calorie intake as his research suggests, there's still more to be done.
"This alone is not going to solve the obesity problem," Elbel told HealthPop, adding that research suggests most people take in 250 calories more than they should through overeating and drinking. But if used effectively with other strategies, he said, "There's some good evidence that [the ban] could be influential."
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