The human health costs of obesity have been well established. But the failure to find a “cure” for obesity, for both individuals and society, reveals the complexity of the problem. After all, each of us knows at least a few individuals who struggle with their weight. The cause of obesity can be captured by the caloric balance, which says that to maintain a healthy weight, intake of calories needs to be matched by energy expenditure.
Despite the apparently simplicity of the caloric balance, the fact is that achieving a caloric balance is challenging: multiple factors influence our food choices. The bodies of work by Brian Wansick (Cornell) and that of Pierre Chandon (INSEAD) provide solid research indicating that what we eat and how much we eat is greatly influenced by the food environment. (a rough definition of the food environment: where we buy food, the types of food available to us, packaging, containers, etc).
Plate size and cup size influence how much we eat and drink. We eat more food if the plates are larger, and drink more if the cups are larger. So downsizing soda cups, as proposed by Bloomberg, is a smart way to regulate the food environment since the smaller cup sizes will likely encourage consumers to drink less soda.
Why soda? The 2010 ERS report Taxing Caloric Sweetened Beverages uses NHANES data to estimate the average daily consumption of soda and sugary beverages, and finds that the average person consumes 22.5 teaspoons of sugar a day. That amount of sugar is entire daily allotment of sugar (according to Dietary Guidelines) for a moderately active man of normal weight. Thus reducing the consumption of sugary drinks can potentially have a dramatic effect on weight.
I love the proposal to reduce soda cup size around the city. From my perspective, Bloomberg’s policy proposal relies on state of the art research on how consumption responds to the food environment, with a target of reducing obesity in NYC. Smaller soda cup size, smaller consumption.
To those who argue that restricting the size of soda cups impinges on individual choice: consumers still have the choice to buy 2 cups of soda instead 1 gigantic cup.