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Melanie Wingo Jensen's picture

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Why knowing the risks of sodas and sugary drinks should have parents limiting the amount their children consume.

Just yesterday, as my kids and I made our way through the checkout lanes at our local Target store, my seven year-old self-proclaimed “soda lover” walked up to the beverage cooler that sits just two steps away from the check stand conveyer belt, and he stared with wide, glazed-over eyes. He stood close to the sliding doors and peered longingly at the numerous offerings--chilling in bottles and cans before him.

iStock_000000613176MediumAs his warm, post-school day breath put a little circle of fog on the glass, he looked up at me with puppy dog eyes and questioned, “Pleeease, Mom…can I get one today?” This much is certain, he wasn’t thirsting for water, even though he had the look of a guy who’d been shuffling through the Sahara and suddenly stumbled upon an oasis! My child was asking (OK, pleading) if we could purchase one, out of the six or so choices of sugary drinks stocked—seemingly countless rows deep—in the cooler.

Like so many other children, my son LOVES those deliciously sweet concoctions. Orange Crush, Dr. Pepper, root beer, colas, “clear” sodas (a.k.a. Sprite or 7Up)….you name it, if it’s fizzy and sweet, my boy would drink a whole 20 ounce plastic bottle full of pop before you could say “atomic belch” if I left him to his own devices and $1.49 in pocket change.

But here’s where the wind departed from my son’s sails, (yet allowed me to put a hash mark in the “you-did-right-by-your-kid-today” column in my mental notes) I simply replied, “Not today, Honey.” That’s it. And with that, I spared his little system the equivalent of 16 teaspoons of sugar (and a boatload of other un-pronounceable chemicals from the ingredients list). Yep, that’s right, sixteen PACKETS worth of the stuff our children are already getting enough, if not too much of, in everything they eat from spaghetti sauce to their lunchtime PB&J sandwiches.

Over the past few months I’ve become fully aware of the critical health risks posed by these drinks. As it happens, I started working alongside the experts at a public health advocacy organization in December. Since that time, I’ve received a crash course in sugar-sweetened beverages, the problems they cause and their prevalence in our culture. It’s been eye-opening, disheartening and motivating all at the same time.

It’s eye-opening to discover just how much sugar is in these things. They’re LOADED with it! More than nine teaspoons of sugar is what your basic 12 ounce can of pop carries. The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day. The AHA says men shouldn’t consume more than nine teaspoons of added sugar a day. So it’s easy to see how soda and other sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars and empty calories in our diets and the largest contributors to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

Sure we all know that drinking a can of soda isn’t like having a plateful of kale, but what most people don’t know (I certainly didn’t) is these drinks are uniquely harmful because they are liquid sugar. Researchers say drinking liquid sugar leads directly to preventable, type-two diabetes. Gulping down sweetened drinks sends huge and fast jolts of sugar to our blood, in-turn overwhelming the body’s ability to use that sugar. So the liver is forced to convert the excess sugar into fat—then stores it. You’ve heard of fatty liver disease, right? It, my friends, is a door knock away from type-two diabetes.

Armed with this knowledge about sugary drinks and what they do to our bodies, I’ve found it disheartening to now observe families on their weekly trips to the supermarket. When you stop and take notice of what’s going into shopping carts, you’ll be floored. Staggering numbers of families are buying liquid sugar by the cartload. A gallon of Minute Maid here… a flat of Gatorade bottles there…a 12-pack of Capri Suns for good measure…Hawaiian Punch…a few “two liters” of whatever soda is on sale…it’s astounding, and so very sad.

It may seem innocuous and for gosh sakes “all-American” to allow our kids to drink sodas, fruit juice cocktails and sports drinks as part of their daily routine. I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t think it was “all that big a deal” until recently. But this stuff is killing us, and what’s worse, our children. They’ll become victims of inevitable medical problems if we do nothing to help set them up for health success.

I’m not a doctor. I’m not a public health expert. I am however a concerned mom/parent like you who’s done her homework.  (Here’s the part where all this new found knowledge is motivating!) I’m eager to spread this critically important health information. Together we need to rise up and stand up to “Big Soda” and the billions upon billions it spends marketing to our kids.

We need to embrace efforts and proposed legislation aimed at informing families about sugary drink dangers—information we have the right to know as consumers and parents. In California, the “Sugar Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Bill” is under consideration by state legislators. SB 1000 would require a simple label be placed on sodas and sugary drinks that reads: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” Maybe people will ignore it, maybe people will see it, scoff and think, “I already knew that.” But for every parent who sees a warning label and reconsiders that soda purchase, the label will have done its job. It certainly can’t hurt anyone, but oh… think how it could help.

I’ve recently made a conscious effort to phase out soda and other sugary drinks from my family’s life as much as possible. We need to drastically limit, if not stop altogether, our kids from getting them, and we need to lead by example by saying “no” to sugar-loaded drinks ourselves. From one mom to others, I’m here to tell you, it’s not OK for our children to consume these junk drinks. It does require us as parents to take responsibility. (Remember: that’s part of our job description!) And your sweet-toothed babes may protest at first. But I promise you, when you make choice to say, “Not today, Honey” you’re helping to build a healthier community, one kid at a time, starting with the child who matters most to you, your own.

Join in asking Burger King and Wendy's to get soda out of kids' meals!

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