Is it time to ban soft drinks?

Soft drink doing too much damage?
Soft drink doing too much damage? 

This morning I was called into the Today show as the Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young, has called on parents to ban their kids from drinking soft drinks and fruit juice. I discussed this with Georgie Gardner who as a parent herself is always outspoken on matters affecting our kids’ health. She wholeheartedly agreed with this proposal. On the whole I concur but this topic warrants further discussion. I asked on twitter for your thoughts and the feedback was mixed. The responses varied from “absolutely” to concerns about responsibility, education and learning moderation and self-control.

There are very few foods or drinks that I dislike so fervently that I would ban them if I could, but I have to confess that soft drinks come close. But do they actually cause obesity? The research on this is mixed and that is because diet is so complex to study. Are the kids who are drinking a lot of soft drink also eating more processed foods? Are they less active? Do they play more electronic games? Are they from a poorer socio-economic group? These interactions of lifestyle and diet intertwine, on a background of genetic predisposition, to impact a child’s risk of being overweight and obese. Unfortunately it is not as simple as laying the finger of blame on one drink or particular food. My first thought on banning soft drinks is that this is an overtly simplistic attempt at a solution for a very complex problem.

Nevertheless the fact is that soft drinks provide an easy route to consuming kilojoules, all coming from added refined sugars, without any nutrients. We know that liquid kilojoules are much easier to over-consume than kilojoules from food we have to chew and digest. In short giving your kids a soft drink is providing non-nutritive kilojoules. Not something we want to do too often. Soft drinks also destroy teeth from both erosion from the acidity level, and encouraging bacterial growth from the sugar. Most contain several artificial flavourings, colourings and preservatives. Not exactly the best fuel for everyday use.

But what about fruit juices? Aren’t they better? Well from a nutritional stance yes they are. They do at least provide some nutrients including vitamin C. But from an energy point of view they are equally kilojoule dense. The sugars may be those found naturally in the fruit, but a glass of fruit juice comes from several pieces of fruit and comes without most of the fibre. Your child doesn’t have to chew and digest the juice as they would whole fruit. This makes the whole experience far less filling and easier to consume. In a child desperately requiring kilojoules this would be good, but lets face it most of our children are not going short. They are often low on nutrients, but kilojoules is something they are getting in excess.

The word ‘ban’ is probably the wrong word as it implies government regulations, which clearly would be difficult to put into place. However I do think we need to take a stricter stance as parents on what we give our kids. Soft drinks and fruit juices should not be consumed everyday. But banning these drinks is not enough. Karl (Stefanovic, Today show host) pointed out that as kids we were much more active and did not come home from school to sit glued to a screen playing games or watching TV. He’s right that physical activity is part of the story. But neither did we snack constantly. When we got hungry we’d have to wait for mealtime. More often we sat down together as a family and ate at a table without the TV for company. We ate less, if any, processed food. There weren’t special “kids food” in the supermarket – we largely just ate what our parents ate. Our parents weren’t so scared about the security of letting us play in the street or walk or ride to school, so we did. We were allowed to skip, do handstands, play ball and hopscotch in the playground – some of these activities are crazily (in my view) banned at some schools. I could go on and on, but the point is that many things about modern life are different for us as parents and for our kids. Even our own upbringing and what we as mothers ate and drank while pregnant impacts on our child’s risk of being overweight and obese later in life.

My first thought on banning soft drinks is that this is an overtly simplistic attempt at a solution for a very complex problem.

Obesity is a complex problem and requires a multileveled approach if we are to start to reverse the frightening statistics on childhood obesity. But when you climb a mountain you don’t start by looking at the summit. You take it one step at a time, one day at a time and eventually you find the summit in your sights. I suggest using this approach to lifestyle and dietary change for our families. If soft drinks are regularly in your supermarket trolley, ditching them is one small step. Just don’t make it the only one.

What do you think? Should soft drink be banned? Leave your comment below.