With intelligence, creativity, targeted investment and lots of hard work, San Antonio is becoming fitter. From 2010-12, adult obesity declined from 35.1% to 28.5%. We are justifiably proud of this accomplishment. But we must acknowledge that there is still a long way to go.
According to a recent Gallup poll, San Antonio is the second heaviest large city in the nation. And the consequences of being overweight are much worse than being made fun of by Charles Barkley during the NBA playoffs.
Health care costs associated with kidney dialysis, blindness, diabetic wound care and amputations, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and other conditions to which obesity is a precursor are huge – not to mention decreased earning power, hampered economic development and damage to our overall quality of life. The true consequences of two-thirds of our population being overweight or obese and 18% being diabetic are beyond calculation.
Rates of obesity in San Antonio and the rest of the U.S. have doubled over the last 30 years, certainly, in part, to spending too much time in front of our flat screen TVs, computers and video games instead of outside in the fresh air or otherwise being physically active. Locally, we have responded with innovations like Síclovía, Fitness in the Park, better bike lanes, more walkable neighborhoods and stairways that are accessible, clean, safe and attractive. These innovations have raised our spirits and are doing much good.
But physical exercise, although very important, is not sufficient to resolve our weight problem. The preponderance of scientific evidence points to unhealthy diet – especially added sugar – as the key driver of the obesity epidemic. It is well-known that, as our weight has doubled in the United States, so has our national consumption of sugar. Americans now consume on average almost 80 pounds of added sugar per person per year. In a very real sense, too much sugar is killing us.
Where is all this sugar coming from, and why are we eating it? Of the 600,000 products available in U.S. grocery stores, 80% have added sugar. Breads, cereals, sauces, salad dressings, practically everything we see on the shelves, even low-calorie foods, have added sugar. Not only are there entire aisles of soft drinks and desserts, they are packed into the checkout stations to make us run a final gauntlet of sweetened temptations. Of all the sugar we consciously or unconsciously consume, fully one half comes from sugar-sweetened beverages, mostly soda. Shockingly, 64% of San Antonians drink soda every day.
The solution to our unhealthy diet is complex and can only be achieved gradually and over time. I believe changes in government subsidies to the sugar industry are essential and that the aggressive promotion of unhealthy food and drink to children must stop.
Ultimately, we need to recapture the tradition of family meals, made from fresh and lightly processed foods, cooked and enjoyed at home at least several times per week. Too many people have lost basic cooking skills and interest in the traditional family meal. They opt instead for fast, cheap and easy. For some, especially working parents and stressed households, the traditional family meal may be an impossible goal. For this reason, improving nutrition at schools, workplaces and restaurants also is essential.
On an individual level, the logical first step toward a healthier diet is to cut back on sugary beverages. Even Coca-cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper/Snapple acknowledge this and have announced, as part of the Clinton Global initiative, that they will work toward reducing soda calories consumed in the U.S. by 20% by 2025. Sugary beverages as an occasional treat are fine, but we know that drinking soda every day is highly associated with obesity.
The logical first step for the 64% of San Antonians who do drink soda every day is to find a healthy alternative. Metro Health suggests as alternatives the “Loteria de Aguas.” Try these delicious and healthy drinks that can be made at home for pennies. Choose some favorites and always keep a full pitcher in the fridge. Over the last few years, 80,000 San Antonians have said “No Thank You!” to the daily soda habit and our local obesity rates have gone down proportionately. It is to everyone’s benefit that this hopeful trend continues.