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Community Voices: American Heart Assoc. urges a sugar-free lifestyle

Dr. Gary Balady

We live in a 24/7, nonstop world. Often, it seems the demands of work and family exceed the number of hours in a day. As a result, taking the time to think about what to eat has become a luxury many people simply don’t think they can afford.  

And so instead of thinking, we reach for the food that is easiest to get. And far too often, choosing the convenient food means choosing food that is less healthy.  

It’s a crazy system, isn’t it?  The tasty, nutritious food, the fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy options are sometimes the most difficult food to find. Meanwhile, the unhealthy food is as close as the nearest vending machine or drive through window. In addition to being convenient, it is often cheap.  

At the American Heart Association, we’ve set an ambitious goal to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent by 2020. That won’t happen unless we change the food and beverage environment in the United States to make the healthier choice the most accessible and most affordable choice.

To do this, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach that addresses all facets of nutrition as well as physical activity.  One of the key prongs to our approach is reducing the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed in the United States.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest single source of added sugars in the U.S. diet. Soft drink consumption is associated with lower intakes of milk, calcium and other nutrients and an increased risk of several medical problems including high blood pressure and diabetes.

If the American Heart Association is going to meet our 2020 goal, we’ll need to reduce the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages Americans are consuming.  

That’s why we were thrilled to see the recent announcement from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino that he is removing the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages on city property and at city events.

And we applaud Bill Walczak, president of Carney Hospital, for joining the mayor and announcing that sugar-sweetened beverages will no longer be available at Carney Hospital facilities.

Their actions are a critical first step in changing the food environment in a way that will make it easier for Boston residents to make healthier food choices.  

Now, critics of the plan will make all kinds of claims.  They will say that these actions won’t solve the obesity epidemic in America. They will say that it isn’t fair to single out one category of products. They will call this the nanny state run amok.

Unfortunately, they are missing the point. The truth is we can’t solve the obesity epidemic in America without addressing the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet.

Reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages won’t solve the entire problem of obesity, but it is a key step in the process. Making the food environment healthier in city buildings and in workplaces such as Carney Hospital is a responsible financial decision from leaders concerned with the bottom line.

As at least eight recent studies have found, obesity leads to significantly decreased productivity in the workplace.  

The announcement from Menino and Walczak represents a measured and thoughtful step in the process of improving the health of Boston residents.  We are pleased to support their effort and join with Walczak in his call for all Massachusetts hospitals to follow Carney’s lead and remove sugar-sweetened beverages from their facilities.  

We live in a world that is built for convenience and built to keep us moving at a fast pace. But we can’t ignore the fact that our pace is slowed by poor health and poor health is directly linked to the food environment in which we live.

We hope you will join us in working to change the food environment in Boston and all of the United States.  Let’s make healthy food the easily accessible and affordable choice.

 Let’s make access to recreation easily accessible and affordable. Let’s teach our kids good nutrition and physical activity habits. When we do we will dramatically improve the health of all Americans. And that’s the goal of the American Heart Association.  

Dr. Gary Balady is a Boston University School of Medicine professor and past president, Founders Affiliate Board of the American Heart Association.

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