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You Deserve a Break Today

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Last month, fast food giant McDonald's achieved a major victory when a judge dismissed a lawsuit alleging it was responsible for causing obesity. The judge, appropriately named Sweet, ruled against the plaintiffs, parents who claimed that by failing to properly disclose the ingredients of its food, Mickey D's had caused severe health problems-including diabetes, hypertension and obesity-for their two teenage daughters. Three cheers for Judge Sweet!

The next health crisis is not HIV/AIDS, heart disease or cancer, but rather obesity. Over the past two decades, overweight Americans have become the majority. They are literally gaining on us every day. Is it because there is too much fat in the Big Mac? Not exactly.

Americans are becoming overweight consuming far too many carbohydrates, mostly in the form of simple sugars obtained from things like soft drinks, low-fat foods and breakfast cereals, as well as the thick shakes and tasty fries served at the fast food palaces. Super-sizing gives you an extra-large soft drink and more fries to stoke even more fat cell production.

 Recently, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health conducted the first long-term study to examine sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and its impact on children's body weight. Their findings, published in Lancet, show that for each additional daily serving of a sugar-sweetened soft drink, the incidence of obesity is significantly increased. Adolescent women average 36.2 grams of sugar per day from soft drinks and adolescent men average 57.7 grams per day. David Ludwig, co-author of the study and director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston, said, "It's not uncommon for teenagers to receive 500 to 1,000 calories per day from sugar-sweetened drinks."

According to the USDA, people consuming 2,000 calories a day shouldn't eat more than about 10 teaspoons of added sugar, yet their surveys show that the average American is consuming about 20 teaspoons of sugar per day. "Sugar consumption is off the charts," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Added sugars-found largely in junk foods such as soft drinks, cakes and cookies-squeeze healthier foods out of the diet." USDA data indicate that sugar consumption in 1999 was 158 pounds per person-30 percent higher than in 1983! Consumption has risen every year but one since 1983. Sugar appears to be a better investment than the stock market. "With all the focus on fat, we've forgotten about sugar. It's time to rethink our national infatuation with sweets," concluded Jacobson.

Our addiction to sugars was driven home to me on a recent trip to the grocery store. I was struck that the food lining the periphery of the store is mostly fresh food: fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products. On the other hand, the majority of foodstuffs in the inner aisles, where shoppers spend most of their time, consists of high-carbohydrate, high-sugar prepared foods, low-fat "diet" foods often full of sugar, soft drinks, chips, crackers and breakfast cereals that are sometimes literally candy when you stop to read the labels. One lap around the store and you begin to get a very clear picture of why we have this public health crisis looming in our midst.

So, let's hope Judge Sweet is not overindulging in sweets: His wisdom in dismissing the McDonalds case strikes a blow against judicial mediocrity, and I wish him a long and successful tenure on the bench. As for myself, I'm going on a diet.

 

 Dr. Bill Brody, President, Johns Hopkins University