Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Soft Drinks & The Blimping of America 

In two days I'll be in the air again, heading north and west from Ohio to get back east to Singapore. As always, it's been great to be "home," with the usual reunions, re-discoveries, surprises.

When I asked my teenage daughter Billie what social phenomena amazed her most in this trip to Ohio, she mentions two things: widespread obesity and general friendliness. Those "impress" me as well. In fact, it's always a pleasure to be in a place like my hometown where approaching a total stranger on a village sidewalk invokes a "hi there" or similar greeting.

Billie's other observation, that obesity seems common, is less comforting. While in a Lancaster, Ohio, doctor's office several weeks ago, I noted that nearly every other waiting patient, seven or eight adults and one child, was overweight, and half of those were obese. Two months ago I visited the university clinic in Singapore and did not see one other person who would qualify as obese. This observation becomes more acute when I remember how during my childhood, 40 years ago, obesity was a rarity, not the norm. In the time worn pictures of my elementary school classes, not one kid is obese.

It's easy to recognize one of the causes: the constant consumption of "soft" drinks.  I have seen shoppers in grocery stores pushing carts that are stacked high with a dozen or so cartons of Coke, Pepsi or other sweet drinks---and nothing else! And I think a visitor to the typical home in Ohio would be hard pressed to find a "second" refrigerator that is not filled with "drinks." Even in my own boyhood home, my mother often follows up greetings to guests with the question: "What would you like to drink? There's A&W Root Beer, Diet Coke, Mountain Dew, Diet Dr. Pepper." At a recent family reunion I observed that nearly every one of the two dozen visitors, myself included, was nursing a canned drink as we sat out on the backyard deck. 

A review of some articles on the Web regarding soft drink consumption in the US provides telling statistics. Americans consume 13.15 billion gallons of carbonated drinks a year. They spend 57 billion dollars a year on these drinks. And between 1977 and 2001, the consumption of soft drinks increased 135%. (For one article recounting a  study done on this topic, read here.)

This obsession with sweetened drinks simply doesn't exist in Asia, and the difference in the size of waistlines shows the real story.

For more about obesity in America, see this article.