February 11 2015

Each day, Americans make choices about what they will eat and drink. Often, these are unhealthy ones, contributing to a national obesity rate of more than 33 percent. Lowering this rate is key to controlling rising health-care costs and improving quality of life.  While many factors contribute to obesity, such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and a desk-bound work environment, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is a leading cause.

Skeptics dismiss a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, claiming that while consumption of sugary drinks has fallen in recent years, the obesity rate has not. There are several ways to explain this apparent paradox. Consumers may replace sugar-sweetened beverages with other, equally unhealthy foods and drinks. A person who doesn’t feel satisfied after consuming empty calories may compensate by eating even more. The adverse effects of physical inactivity and sedentary work may outweigh efforts to improve diet. Excess calorie intake over the long term disrupts the process by which insulin regulates metabolism. Finally, a combination of factors could be at play, leading to the adverse end result: weight gain.

In our report “Drink Different,” we focused on the “empty calories” in in sugar-sweetened beverages — including sodas, sports drinks, and fruit drinks with less than 100 percent fruit juice — that contain an average of 10 teaspoons of sugar per 12-ounce container. We wanted to examine the relationship between these beverages and obesity while taking into account geographical diversity, public policy differences, local demographics and infrastructure, as well as other contributing factors.  Our analysis found that a moderate lifestyle change reducing empty calories (for example, sugar-sweetened beverages) can have a substantial impact on health while generating economic dividends.  Precisely, if we accelerated the reduction in sugary drink consumption so that in 2030 Americans consumed three fewer 12-oz beverages per month compared with the baseline rate, the number of obese Americans would be reduced by 2.6 million.  The process of reaching this goal by 2030 would produce a cumulative savings of $26.2 billion in 2010 dollars for the U.S. health-care system.

Our findings point to a strong financial and moral incentive to develop and implement public policy promoting healthier beverage choices. To come to terms with this serious issue, policymakers, consumers, business leaders, nonprofits, and other stakeholders should reach beyond their silos. A multisector, multistrategy approach is crucial to engage Americans in long-lasting, healthful decision-making. Here are the policies we propose:
1.    Pricing: The pricing of healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages should be competitive to discourage the purchase on unhealthy drinks.
2.    Promoting Alternatives: Making healthy drinks, including water, an attractive option could curb sugary drink consumption.
3.    Health Education and Awareness: Creating awareness and a culture of health could bring long-term benefits.
4.    Infrastructure for Healthy Food and Beverage Options: Expanding access to healthier foods by encouraging retailers to offer such options is key.
5.    Physical Activity: If long-term weight management is to succeed, nutritious food and drink consumption must be complemented by an active lifestyle.
6.    Social Responsibility: Businesses, city leaders, and communities must work together to increase awareness by pledging support for healthy lifestyles.

Click here to view and download report

This blog was co-authored by Sindu Kubendran, Research/Health Analyst for the Milken Institute, who co-authored the report with Anu Chatterjee, Ph.D.

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