Dear Mayor Bloomberg,
I believe congratulations are in order. Not for creating a ban on sugary drinks that 52 percent of New Yorkers think will have little to no impact, but for creating a series of paternalistic pro-health laws while still managing to convince most respondents in a recent poll into thinking you're doing a pretty good job. So, yes, you've shown us that action is better than hand wringing when you're trying to win the hearts of New Yorkers, but when it comes to the specifics of your soda ban, I think you've still got a ways to go. Since you only partake in the occasional diet drink on a hot day, I'd like to give you a bit of a look into my world so that you can realize how misguided your new law really is.
You probably don't know what it feels like to start the day off with five or six Pop-Tarts washed down with a one-liter bottle of soda. To then stop on the way to school and grab a Big Gulp, some chips and a few candy bars. To consume a lunch of greasy white pasta paired with a delightful carbonated beverage from Atlanta's finest caves. To come home, flop down in front of the TV and eat an entire box of gooey breadsticks, wings and a large pizza while drinking at least one two-liter bottle of soda (not diet, but you've probably already guessed that).
I used food and soda the way a drug addict uses drugs, and that's how I ended up weighing 360 pounds at the age of 17. Holing myself up on the couch with mountains of junk food was a surefire way to distract myself from the challenges of everyday life. Food never judged me. It just tasted good and made me feel better. I would eat to fill the void of loneliness and then fall asleep from the crash after the sugar high. And, like a true addict, I kept using long after I realized my behavior was putting my health in danger.
I wasn't laughing when I heard comedian Louis C.K. say, "I don't stop eating when I'm full. The meal isn't over when I'm full. The meal is over when I hate myself." The truth hurts. Which brings me back to my problem with your new ban. When you're obese, you're not out there having fun at stadiums or movie theaters or grabbing a sports drink from a street cart during your daily 5k run -- you're picking up a case of soda and making a beeline to the comfort of your home where you can eat and drink without being stared at, judged and ridiculed.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm grateful for all the discussion you've stirred up. In fact, I hope we will one day ruefully laugh at all of this in the same way we now laugh at young Sally Draper walking around with a dry cleaning bag over her head on Mad Men. For now, though, I just don't think that controlling what Americans eat is the answer. Education is key -- and I'm not just talking about making informed food choices. I'm talking about raising a nation of citizens who are critical consumers of media. Disney's recent step of setting up a nutritional requirement to market to our children is a step in the right direction. We can train and condition them with the right habits early on so that they experience the positive benefits of making the correct choices. When they come of age, I believe they will be confronted by some of the darker choices of life, with the opportunity to try many unhealthy things, and in our great country they should still have the freedom to choose. As Robert Maynard Hutchins said, "The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives."
I believe through education and peer influence in those most pivotal of years, experience being the best teacher of all, we can rest assured that the years of health, strength and vigor from making the healthiest of choices will steer our nation in a new positive direction. Simply forcing folks to purchase a smaller serving won't solve anything. While it may be a deterrent for those who are cost-sensitive, is it truly dealing with the issue of the ignorance that many adults and children have toward the effects of their choices on their wellness and happiness? My own grandparents believed diabetes to be something you could pick up like chickenpox -- that once you have it, it's outside of your control!
When it comes to education, Bill Clinton, who, like me, has had his own weight loss transformation (and was also kind enough to endorse my recent book) is doing great work via his Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation in 2005, the Alliance's mission is to reduce childhood obesity and empower children across the country to make healthy lifestyle choices. We need more programs like this. Of the more than 14,000 schools involved in the program, 80 percent of them have made measurable progress toward healthier policies and programs, 50 percent have improved the nutritional value of their school meals and 85 percent meet or exceed the Alliance's School Beverage Guidelines.
Which brings us back to sugary drinks. Bill Clinton, during his recent CNN interview in which he expressed support for Bloomberg's ban, reminded us of some of the staggering costs of obesity:
We've got this explosion of diabetes in America among young people. For the first time, Type 2 diabetes is showing up in 9-year-olds and among the Baby Boomers who are retiring. And together, these things are going to bankrupt us. It's a terrible human tragedy, and it's basically too much sugar going into the body, we can't process it all.
While I have tremendous empathy for those who suffer from lifestyle diseases (I was once one of them), I also know that with the right mindset, change is always possible. I have gone from weighing 360 pounds to my current weight of 225 pounds, with less than 10 percent body fat. How could such a radical epiphany occur? It wasn't through someone forcing my hand to drink a smaller cup of regular soda -- it was through the realization that a better future was possible.
I'm a living example, as are the thousands of people I've helped. To truly reach your full potential, your must take responsibility for the outcomes of your choices. Our citizens must come to understand that many of the illnesses they suffer from are of their own making. For our children: regulation with education. For our adults: education.
The fulfillment of our citizens' lives depends on the realization that their destiny, specifically, their health, is far more under their control than they now realize. I believe if we focus our efforts on health education, media literacy and ways to effectively market a healthy lifestyle (ideally making it as appealing as the ads that show models eating unhealthy foods they likely never touch), we can achieve the outcome we all are looking for: a nation of happy, healthy, fulfilled people working toward the advancement of our country. A ban won't be necessary, as companies won't pay for cups that no one buys.
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