x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

You're welcome to an extra helping of obesity at the snack bar

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to limit serving sizes of sugary drinks has merit n a world beset by obesity.

The other day, I went to the movies with my children. That, as many parents know, means endless snack bar negotiations: yes to popcorn but no to the bucket that's bigger than your torso; yes to sweets but you have to share the giant box with everyone; and no, you can't have a soft drink, have a bottle of water instead.

Snack-wrangling complete, we went into the theatre, where the sounds of people slurping and chewing almost drowned out the previews. Most of the people had opted for the "deal": a trough of popcorn accompanied by a soft drink the size of a small swimming pool.

The fact that so many people suck down giant-sized soft drinks may be a significant factor in some of the health problems that have become prevalent in the UAE in recent years. In those supersized soft drinks, you will find more than 75 grams of sugar and up to 400 calories. And before diet soft drinkers pat themselves on the back, scientists have shown that artificial sweeteners lead to elevated glucose levels, which the liver then converts to body fat.

If New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, however, "soda belly" might become a thing of the past - and I think that the UAE might consider following his lead. Mr Bloomberg has proposed a ban on selling more than 16-ounce (0.45 litres) cups of soft drinks, which most nutritionists would consider as two servings. Cinemas, sports arenas and restaurants are among those that would be affected by the ban. While it's true that you could buy two cups of soft drinks for yourself to get around the rule, I'm betting most people won't. After all, when you're carrying the tub of popcorn plus the packet of liquorice, it's hard to juggle two cups.

New Yorkers, who always love a fight, are furious about Mr Bloomberg's proposal, just as they were when he proposed a ban on smoking in public places (the bill passed); on the use of transfats in restaurants (the bill passed); and his law requiring fast-food chain restaurants to post the calorie count of their menu items (that bill passed too).

With each battle, people have declared it the end of democracy and the ruin of business, but these dire predictions have not materialised. In fact, despite their fury, New Yorkers re-elected Mr Bloomberg twice - he is now finishing out his third and final term.

Mr Bloomberg says his proposal is both healthy and pragmatic: US national health-care costs related to obesity are at $147 billion (Dh540 billion) and growing, just like waistlines. His opponents shriek that he is trampling individual rights; they've called him an overbearing nanny, a fascist food dictator and a presumptuous monarch out to ruin people's lives.

You'd think Mr Bloomberg wanted everyone to become vegans and live on fried tofu balls, or that somewhere in the US Constitution it stipulates that eating yourself into disastrous, financially ruinous health problems was an inalienable right. Did I miss that provision back in my school days when I studied US history?

Before you rush to say that you'd support this ban only after they pry your dead (podgy) fingers from that two-litre bottle of Diet Coke, let's talk about health problems, shall we? Let's talk about the fact that a recent UAE University study found that, of more than 1,000 Emirati children, 18 per cent of were medically obese; that the UAE is second in the world for prevalence of diabetes; and that UAE residents suffer from heart disease about 15 years earlier than residents in the US or UK - in their 40s, rather than in their early 60s.

Let's not forget that adult-onset diabetes is on the rise around the world, and in ever-younger patients, and that one in seven children in the EU is overweight or obese.

True, we can't blame soft drinks for all these medical ailments, but it does seem that supersize soft drinks go with other bad dietary habits, such as "individual" fast food servings that would feed a family of four.

Maybe you can't give up your Double Whopper with Cheese, but how about a small Pepsi instead of a bucketful? I'm not suggesting we bring back dates and camel milk as a dietary staple, but if we can't trust ourselves to ration our portions, perhaps we should ask the government to do it for us.

Maybe then I could go to the movies with my children without suffering through the snack-bar wars.

 

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at New York University Abu Dhabi

www.mannahattamamma.com