NYC Soda Cap Is Based on a Flawed Premise of Food Consumption

Prairie Gleanings

Listen up: size doesn't matter. Making healthier food choices does.

Published on: June 7, 2012

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bid to ban sugary drinks that contain more than 16 ounces hinges on a not-so-exact science – psychology.

The ban assumes if New Yorkers can’t carry more than 16 ounces of an unhealthy drink around, they will consume less overall. By consuming less, they will lose weight. As a psychology minor, I’m in no way qualified to speak to the reasoning behind this bit of mental trickery. But I will.

I’m reminded of a funny conversation from my high school days. A friend of mine was working at Kroger to earn a little spending money on the side. He worked with a fellow who was quite large and apparently had a penchant for being unintentionally funny.

On this particular day, the large fellow groused to my friend about his weight problem. “I don’t know why I’m so fat,” he said, or something like that. Being a good listener, my friend engaged him and asked what he ate.

“Well, that’s the thing,” he started. “I don’t eat that much. I eat a biscuit sandwich at McDonald’s. Then I have an extra value meal for lunch and another for dinner.” Fighting back the urge to laugh, my friend mimicked his disbelief at the situation.

Unfortunately, many Americans have similar thoughts when it comes to food consumption. In a society hung up on size, we haven’t always thought in terms of calories, fat content and carbohydrates. Much like Mr. 3 Value Meals a Day, some of us look at meals in terms of “will I still be hungry after I consume this.”

Fast food menu structure only reinforces this notion. Don’t think a Wendy’s single patty value meal will fill you up? Go for the double. Soon, the double-patty burger isn’t enough. Then it’s on to the triple. If that doesn’t cut it, you can upsize your fries and drink. Still hungry? Add a Frosty.

This sort of consumption by volume or weight became the norm in the fast food boom. Today, restaurants are much better about publishing nutritional data. Still, many of us are stuck in this flawed mode of thinking.

Unfortunately, Bloomberg’s proposed ban only perpetuates this method of food consumption. Take fun-size candy bars for instance. Does anyone actually eat just one Snickers fun size? Doubtful.

I’ll be interested to see how the NYC sugary drink scenario plays out. I’d wager consumers will see a 16-ounce soda cap as a way to make up for lost volume with other foods: perhaps an ice cream cone, a milkshake or maybe a bigger carton of fries.

The obesity problem won’t be solved with volume caps or taxes. It will be solved when we start making better choices. Unfortunately, that’s not something you can legislate.