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Pop a few myths about obesity

It looks like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has solved the obesity crisis for all of us by banning soft drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces (473 millilitres).

That was easy! Forget about the complex causes of obesity, or the billions spent by determined but frustrated dieters struggling with their weight. (And does anyone find it ironic that Mr. Bloomberg hosted a July 4 hot-dog eating competition that saw the winner consume more than 20,000 calories of meat in 10 minutes?)

Before we get carried away and import New York's useless policy, let's dispense with some myths about soda consumption, childhood obesity causes, taxation, the food and beverage industry and the role of the state in keeping us healthy.

Myth 1: Soft drink consumption is rising.

In fact, soda consumption in Canada is falling. Look no further than Statistics Canada for data on the subject. Canadians consumed 82.14 litres of carbonated soft drinks per capita in 2010 – a 30-per-cent decline from 1999, when consumption was 117 litres per person. This decline took place without any specific policy intervention; it simply reflected changing patterns of consumption and a wider array of products being offered by beverage companies. No need for government intervention here.

Myth 2: Kids are fat because they drink too much soda.

A recent study at the University of Saskatchewan published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism does not reveal a strong relationship between soda beverage consumption and obesity in children. A blog post by obesity expert Dr. Arya Sharma, who reviewed the study, concludes that:

"Overall, the researchers failed to find any significant relationship emerged between beverage pattern and overweight and obesity among the kids with one exception: in boys aged 6-11 years … Thus, with the exceptions of young boys, who drink a fairly impressive amount of soft drinks, this national cross-sectional dietary intake data does not suggest that beverages are a major driver of excess weight in Canadian kids."

The study has its limitations, but you can be sure that if the results showed the opposite, the study would have made front-page news.

Myth 3: Taxes worked for tobacco, so they'll work for soft drinks.

When tax or regulation advocates try to defend their position, they always look to how similar policies worked in fighting tobacco use. Taxing one product, such as tobacco, is easy. Taxing food and beverages is entirely different. We need to eat and drink, but not smoke. Where does one start with foods and beverages that contribute to weight gain? There are countries that are imposing taxes on saturated fats, such as Denmark, but I doubt it will do much good. If taxes were a solution, obesity would be an easy problem to fix.

Myth 4: Big food and beverage companies don't care about your health.

As with any morality tale, we need villains. And when it comes to obesity, big food and beverage companies are easy targets.

Many food and beverage companies are quietly reducing the sugar content of their products. For example, over several years, Danone has reduced the level of sugar in its sweetened water by 20 to 40 per cent. Kraft has stopped advertising some foods to children. Other companies, such as Lipton Tea, General Foods, Hellmann's and Knorr, are working to cut calories and sugars in their products. Many companies are going "healthy" to stay ahead of the market, including the perennial bad guy, McDonald's. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are working toward no-calorie and low-calorie products.

Myth 5: Follow government food guides and you'll be healthy.

Government policies that try to do good often end up doing the opposite. Think of gambling and lotteries – policies in some areas give rise to as many problems as they try to solve. In the case of encouraging healthy eating, Canadians have traditionally turned to the Canada Food Guide. Over the past 50 years, Canada's Food Guide has emphasized the consumption of meat, eggs, cheese, milk and a range of wheat-based products. One quickly notices two things: First, that government programs heavily subsidize these products. Second, that they hardly fit today's healthy diet requirements. Only recently has the guide begun recommending such exotic items as tofu, peanut butter, brown rice and soy milk. Government food mandates are not immune to fads and trends, and we can't always rely on the state to tell us what to eat and drink.

When it comes to obesity, let's at least admit one thing: Obesity is a complex business with no top-down, simple solution. If governments want to effect real change, they have to start with education and the family. Simply imposing a new regulation – such as restricting the size of soda containers – may make anti-soda advocates feel better, but that's it. No lasting solution here. Mr. Bloomberg's idea is one we can do without.

Patrick Luciani is co-author with Neil Seeman of XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.