A Sticky Problem: Obesity Rates are Up, Sugar Consumption is Down

Americans drink too many sugary drinks, if you buy the exhaustive coverage of the obesity problem in the United States. But 50 percent of Americans don’t drink sugary drinks on a daily basis at all, if you buy another study. So what’s the story?

The problem, which is illustrated in a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is that while an overall trend toward encouraging healthier eating and drinking practices is reaching more consumers, some groups are left conspicuously behind — and there’s approximately 25 percent of U.S. consumers who are drinking enough to make up for the ones who don’t.

Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, and one of the authors of the report, says that while the consumption of sugary drinks has declined, for the heaviest consumers it is still well above the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 450 kilocalories of sugary beverages a week.

Sugar water charges are a sticky problem, indeed.

“The top 25 percent consume over 200 kilocalories each day,” says Ogden. “These sugar drinks are empty calories.”

Consumption rates spike along class, age, and ethnic lines. While in all racial categories, consumption of sugary beverages is quite high in the 2-19 age group, the movement away from sugary drinks can be seen in some groups, but not in others for individuals 20 and over. Non-Hispanic blacks consume the highest percentage of their daily caloric intake from sugary drinks, at 8.6 percent, while adult Mexican-Americans jump the most dramatically, from 7.4 to 8.2 percent; Non-Hispanic white people reduce the percentage of their calories coming from sugary drinks, dropping, on average, from 7.7 to 5.3 percent.

The more prosperous a consumer, the lower the percentage of soda consumption, the report showed: economic groups with incomes more than 30 percent over the poverty line showed a sharp drop in soda consumption, while for those under that income level, consumption increased from 8.2 percent to 8.8 percent of daily caloric intake from sugary drinks.

While sugary drink consumption is up for some groups, however, as an overall trend, Americans are making progress in barring added sugar from their diets. In a response to the CDC study, the American Beverage Association pointed out that the average American diet contained about 1/4 less added sugar in 2008 than it did in 1999.

Additionally, the ABA said that weight gain can’t just be from sodas.

“The sale of full calorie soft drinks has decreased 12.5 percent from 1999 to 2010,” said Chris Grindlesperger, director of communications at the American Beverage Association. “During that time, obesity rates continued to rise.”

Grindlesperger said that he thought the best way to tackle an issue like this was cooperatively.

“I don’t think campaigns or bans [against sugary drinks] have an impact on teaching people about healthy, balanced and active living,” he said. “What does work are comprehensive initiatives bringing together teachers and government and the industry to tackle a complex issue like obesity.”

While the statistics don’t indicate a clear cause of why some groups continue consuming and others don’t, it does highlight some of the dividing lines. With the convergence of obesity rates and sugary drink consumption, weight remains a sticky problem for the industry, as does the perception that obese consumers are drinking more than their share of calories. But as beverage calories go down, it’s an argument that may hold less water in the future.