Commentary: Beverage bill takes aim at childhood obesity

Every child deserves the promise of the future — a healthier future. As physicians, we both consider the health of the entire state. We consider policies that affect everyone’s health. We see the suffering that poor nutrition causes and we see how choosing healthy beverages is a challenge for families.

We have to think about how communities are overwhelmed by a beverage industry that too often makes cheap, unhealthy, sugar-filled drinks the first option for a drink. One place to start: restaurants. That is often the place for a quick choice and a fast decision. Promoting the best choices at restaurants can also help families make healthier choices at home.

Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, a mom and a nurse, thinks we can make things better not only in restaurants, but also by influencing choices at home. She is the prime sponsor of House Bill 79, which would make the default beverage in bundled children’s meals water, sparkling water, flavored water with no added sugar, flavored or unflavored milk, or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice. If parents or guardians choose, they can opt for an alternative beverage instead.

Dr. Karyl Rattay

With almost a third of Delaware’s children age 10-17 at an unhealthy weight — either overweight or obese — we believe it’s time for the change that House Bill 79 would bring. In the last 40 years, rates of childhood obesity in the U.S. have doubled for those age 2-5, tripled for those age 6-11, and quadrupled for those 12-19 years. Providing a healthier option for children’s meals would support parents and their children.

According to Healthy Food America, children typically take in almost twice as many calories when they eat at a restaurant compared to when they eat at home. Having a regular soda instead of a 100 percent juice box can add over 100 calories to one child’s meal. Multiply that by the number of times you eat out in a week or a month and you can see how those calories could add up.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association estimate that added sugars makes up less than 10 percent of the total calories consumed by children and adolescents. Studies have put the percentage actually consumed at 17 percent, with nearly half of the total attributed to beverages — sugary sports drinks, sodas and fruit-flavored drinks.

The calories not only add up, but they can lead to a life of chronic illness. Already, children in Delaware and across the country who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, asthma, low self-esteem and depression, according to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Studies are clear: If we can reduce consumption of sugary drinks, we can lower the prevalence of overweight, obesity and obesity-related diseases.

Across the country, we see this is possible. Restaurants at Walt Disney theme parks have embraced healthier defaults on kids’ meals for both beverages and side dishes. At Disney — on those special-occasion trips — parents stuck with the healthier beverages two-thirds of the time.

Wilmington has joined such cities as Baltimore and Lafayette, Colorado, that have passed ordinances requiring restaurants to offer healthier beverages as the defaults that come with children’s meals.

Kara Odom Walker

The beverage industry is embracing the change in Americans’ overall beverage habits. An increasing proportion of beverage companies’ profits are coming from the sale of water, 100 percent juice and other healthy beverages. You’ve seen those beverages taking up more shelf space in the grocery store and more cooler space at Wawa.

This legislation also would take an important step forward on one of the priorities of Gov. John Carney to reduce the impact of obesity as a way to improve health outcomes and reduce health costs. House Bill 79 would go a long way toward supporting healthier Delaware families, and ensuring a healthier future for Delaware’s children.

Dr. Kara Odom Walker is a family physician and Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Health and Social Services. Dr. Karyl Rattay is a pediatrician and the Director of the Division of Public Health.

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