Baltimore bounces sugary sodas off restaurant children’s menus, favoring milk, water, juices

water-300x200Families dropping into Baltimore restaurants may be surprised by what is no longer on the children’s menu, thanks to an official mandate: sugary soft drinks.

At the behest of public health officials, Baltimore has become the largest US city and an East Coast pioneer in enforcing a new restaurant ordinance that makes water, milk, and 100 percent fruit juices the default drinks for youngsters.

Parents who really want their kids to have a sugar-laden soft drink can still get them, but the parent has to place the order. The idea is to get parents to pause and think, and nudge them toward healthier choices.

Leana Wen, a physician and Baltimore’s health commissioner, told NBC News that getting sodas off kids’ restaurant menus was an important step in getting youngsters and their parents to think about healthier alternatives to sugar-laden drinks: “The science is clear that a major contributor to childhood obesity is sugary drinks, and taking out these empty calories is one of the single biggest lifestyle changes that parents and children can make,” Wen said.

Children’s health advocates noted that Baltimore families eat out often, on average 2.4 to 3 times a week, research shows. So, cutting multiple rounds of soda consumption at restaurants can be key.

Other experts said they wished that Baltimore had gone one step further, questioning whether fruit juices — which also typically contain high amounts of sugar, albeit of natural varieties, as well as pulp and fiber — also should have been added to the menu nix list.

Because juices seem to generate such nutritional controversy, though — see, for example, the recent discussions in the New York Times, against and for them and their relative health benefits or harms — Baltimore’s push for water and milk seem most sensible.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the havoc that can be wreaked on them and their lives by excessive sugar and caloric consumption, resulting in obesity.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that childhood obesity is a “serious problem in the United States putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health. Obesity prevalence among children and adolescents is still too high,” afflicting 18.5 percent of young Americans ages 2 to 19 or about 13.7 million children and adolescents. It’s more common among Hispanics (25.8%) and non-Hispanic blacks (22%).

Big Soda and Big Sugar long have sought not only to make calorie-laden sweet drinks ubiquitous for Americans — pushing not only caffeinated, carbonated, and highly and artificially flavored pop but also so-called sports and energy drinks — industry leaders also have campaigned to dissuade the public about such beverages’ harms.

But consumers and researchers have developed an ever-growing body of information on not only how sugary drinks fuel obesity but also contribute to other harmful conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancers.

Lest anyone still doubt how debilitating excessive soda consumption can be, the New York Times reported on the Mexican town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, where a scarcity of potable water has led residents to guzzle pop, instead. As the newspaper found, “Residents of San Cristóbal and the lush highlands that envelop the city drink on average more than two liters, or more than half a gallon, of soda a day.” The result:

The effect on public health has been devastating. The mortality rate from diabetes in Chiapas increased 30 percent between 2013 and 2016, and the disease is now the second-leading cause of death in the state after heart disease, claiming more than 3,000 lives every year.

Now some American parents may object that there’s no way they would let their kids drink anywhere near as much soda as San Cristóbal residents, and some might even object to Baltimore’s kiddies’ menu ordinance as “nanny state” interference, the New York Times also reported recently on a German study on how well grown-ups estimate the sugar content in youngsters’ diets. They first weighed and measured kids in the 300-plus families participating in the research, recording the youngsters’’ body mass index (BMI).

Here’s what they found:

The parents were asked to estimate the sugar content in various foods and beverages; these included orange juice, yogurt, pizza and ketchup, all of which are common in the diets of young children. To help the parents visualize sugar volumes, they were told to think in terms of sugar cubes and that each cube contains roughly 3 grams of sugar. About three-quarters of the parents underestimated the total amount of sugar in the foods — in some cases radically, with the biggest divergences happening around foods commonly seen as ‘healthful.’ More than 90 percent of the study participants underestimated the sugar in yogurt, for instance, by an average of seven cubes, or about 60 percent of the total sugar in each serving. More concerning, these misjudgments turned out to be related to children’s body weights: Those with the highest BMIs tended to have parents with the largest underestimates.

Many youngsters still have weeks of summer vacation hanging around the house. Wise grown-ups may want to keep them well hydrated — but with lots of plain, healthful water.

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