By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 speaker Laura Schmidt, PhD
As a society, we are confronting some tough facts about the way we eat and what it’s doing to our health. We live in an environment that bombards us with hyper-palatable foods and sugary drinks on a 24/7 basis—products carefully engineered by scientists to be impossibly tempting and habit-forming. It’s not surprising that many of us find it difficult to summon the willpower to avoid heavy use of these products.
But we can’t ignore the warning signs that our food environment isn’t just making us fat, it’s also making us sick. One is the appearance of adult diseases in children. In my parent’s generation, they called it “adult onset diabetes” because only adults got it. Today, one in four American children will acquire Type 2 diabetes within their lifetimes and an alarming half of our children of color.
When problems get this big and overwhelming, there’s a strong impulse to ignore the problem—to fall into “diabetes denial” just like some people deny the reality of climate change. And at its crux, the junk food problem isn’t all that different from carbon emissions. It’s driven by globalizing industries that reap the economic rewards of free trade as governments struggle—and often fail—to establish regulations that protect human and planetary health.
What’s remarkable is how much progress we have made in the short time that I’ve been involved in food policy, particularly regarding sugar. I was an addiction researcher for years before I wandered into food policy research and got stuck. I got stuck by the sheer enormity of the problem and because I could see that time-tested regulatory solutions for alcohol and tobacco could help us clean up our food environment.
What it takes to fix wicked problems is a “virtuous cycle” of public health policymaking. This is no better illustrated than by the war on tobacco—the single greatest public health victory of the 20th century. Here’s how it works:
It starts with courageous public officials telling people the cold hard facts, thus moving the society out of denial. What follows are policies to tax the most harmful products, which generate funds for public health programs, such as public education campaigns and school-based programs. As momentum picks up, policymakers feel emboldened to pass new regulations, such as product warning labels, as well as measures that directly clean up the environment.
In the short time I’ve been working on food policy, I’ve seen the virtuous cycle take off with regards to some of the most harmful products, namely sugary drinks. Here are just a few highlights:
Courageous public officials speak out: Thomas Frieden, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “Taxing sugary drinks at 1 cent per ounce could be the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic.”
Taxes generate funding for public health: First sugary beverage taxes passed within US borders: the Navajo Nation (2015), Berkeley, CA (2015), Philadelphia, PA (2016)
Policymakers are emboldened: First sugary beverage warning label legislation passed (San Francisco, CA, 2015); first US Dietary Guideline setting an national limit on added sugars (2015); first Food and Drug Administration nutrition label to warn consumers of added sugars (2016)
Direct measures to clean up food environments: First state sales ban of sugary beverages in schools (California, 2009); first city to ban sale on all city properties (New York City, 2012); hospitals begin to ban sales (2011)
The first step in recovering from addiction is to stop denying the problem. It is so gratifying to see our society move from denial to action on sugar in just a few years. May we see many more virtuous cycles that promote human and planetary health to come.
In her TEDMED 2015 Talk, UCSF researcher and sugar policy expert Laura Schmidt questions whether consumers truly have freedom of choice over the foods they purchase and eat in our sugar saturated society.