In recent years, hospitals and medical centers across the country have stopped selling sugar-sweetened beverages in an effort to reduce obesity and diabetes. Now a new study at the University of California, San Francisco, has documented the health effect of a soda sales ban on its employees.
Ten months after a soda sales ban went into effect, UCSF workers who tended to drink a lot of sugary beverages had cut their daily intake by about half. By the end of the study period, they had, on average, reduced their waist sizes and belly fat, though they did not see any changes in their body mass index.
Those who cut back on sugary beverages also tended to see improvements in insulin resistance, a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes.
What it means
The new research, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, is the first peer-reviewed study to examine whether a workplace sales ban on sugary drinks could lead to reduced consumption of the beverages and improve employee health.
“This was an intervention that was easy to implement,” said Elissa Epel, an author of the study and director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center at UCSF. “It’s promising because it shows that an environmental change can help people over the long run, particularly those who are consuming large amounts of sugary beverages, and possibly even lead to a reduction in their risk of cardiometabolic disease.”
UCSF, a health sciences center with more than 24,000 employees, carried out its sales ban in 2015. The university removed all sugar-sweetened beverages from cafeterias, food trucks and vending machines on its campus and installed more water stations. Fast food chains including Subway and Panda Express on its campus agreed to stop selling the beverages as well. One exception was made for 100% fruit juices, which contain natural sugars but have no sugar added to them.
To examine the effect of the sales ban, the researchers recruited a diverse group of 214 campus employees and then followed them, regularly taking blood samples and measuring things such as their weight, soda intake and waist sizes.
Why it matters
In recent years, the link between sugar and obesity has drawn increasing scientific attention. Health authorities say Americans have gotten fatter because they are consuming too many calories of all kinds. But some experts have singled out the role of added sugar consumption, which increased more than 30% between 1977 and 2010.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, sports drinks, fruit punches, sodas and other sweetened drinks are the single largest source of calories and added sugar in the American diet and “a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.” Large studies have linked them to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and premature death.
Concerns about sugar have prompted at least 30 medical centers nationwide to stop selling sugary drinks, including the University of Michigan Health System, the Cleveland Clinic and the Baylor Health Care System. A similar movement took place in Britain, where in 2018 the National Health Service banned the sale of sugary beverages in hospitals across England.
Photo: The New York Times
Critics point out that obesity rates have continued to rise even though consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in America has fallen in the last 16 years. About half of all adults consume sugary drinks on any given day, down from roughly 62% in 2003. Large beverage companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group are also offering many more drinks that have low or no calories. More than half the beverages they sell today contain no sugar, said William Dermody, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association.
Sales bans vs. soda taxes
Sugary drink sales bans have been somewhat less controversial than soda taxes, which have had mixed results. A study in Berkeley, California, found sugary drink consumption fell and water consumption rose three years after the city put in place a soda tax. But another recent study found no significant overall declines in consumption in Philadelphia and Oakland in response to soda taxes there. In Philadelphia, the largest city with a soda tax, consumption of soda in particular fell, and children who were heavy consumers of sugary beverages reported drinking less. But residents also reported buying more sugary beverages in neighboring towns that did not have soda taxes.
At the outset, the researchers focused on enrolling a lot of lower-income service workers because they tended to drink the most sugary beverages. On average, the employees recruited for the study drank the equivalent of three cans of soda per day. One group that had an especially high sugar intake was cafeteria workers, the result of an “open tap” policy that allowed them to drink freely from the dining hall soda machines.
At least nine other University of California campuses have said they are going to adopt similar initiatives to reduce sugary beverage sales and promote water consumption.
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