PORTLAND — “Drinking plain water is so disgusting!”

This refrain is one I hear often from children and adolescents at the Countdown to a Healthy ME clinic, part of The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, for obesity treatment.

Perhaps even more jarring is that this comment does not reflect attention-seeking or rebellion; my patients believe what they are saying is true.

With tongues that have been bathed in a super-sugary food environment since infancy, is it any wonder that the taste of plain water is unpalatable to some children? It is a disturbing reality that children can learn to condemn water, the very essence of life.

This week, the City of Portland is unveiling a campaign to raise awareness about sugar content in common beverages. It may be common knowledge that soda is bad for you, but it is less common to know about the amount of sugar and calories that may be found in some sweet drinks.

One typical 16-ounce soda may contain 70 grams of sugar or more, equal to about six scoops of ice cream – or more than 15 packets of sugar. Eating that much ice cream in one sitting is excessive, but grabbing a 16-ounce soda with lunch is the norm for many.

To diagnose diabetes, doctors often check blood sugars after prescribing a 75-gram glucose (sugar) drink; because many drinks contain about this much sugar or more, it is not an exaggeration to say that a 16-ounce soda is “prescription strength.”

“But we don’t have soda in our house.”

This is another common report I hear from families. However, when we dig deeper we often find intake of other sweet drinks: sports and energy drinks, juice, flavored “water,” iced tea, even coffee. Many children consume these drinks outside the home unbeknownst to their caregivers.

Many parents feel they are keeping their children healthy with the drinks they provide. Advertisements promoting performance enhancing properties of sports drinks or nutrients in juice are very convincing. Labels with words like “vitamin,” “anti-oxidant” and “serving of fruit” help disguise the simple truth that sweet drinks contain calories that most people don’t need. Ensuring children are drinking water and 1 percent or skim milk can quickly put families on the right track to achieving a healthy weight.

“We would eat better but healthy food is too expensive.”

Many families we work with are concerned that our food recommendations are too expensive. However, we can often help families improve food quality without a change in budget. Saving dollars by eliminating bottled drinks, including those that are sugar-free, and using tap water is a good first step.

Some policy makers argue that obesity is a personal choice, that if only someone ate less and exercised more they would be thin. This oversimplification is untrue. Obesity is a complex problem of human biology and behavior. Hormone and metabolic changes that are caused by obesity make it more difficult to lose weight. Childhood obesity is associated with social and emotional problems and puts health at risk for a lifetime. Doctors in my field commonly point out, “No child chooses to be obese.”

The obesity epidemic in America will be irreversible unless broad based change is implemented across society. The stakes are high. Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, liver disease, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea, once rare in pediatrics, are now becoming disturbingly common.

Ending the obesity epidemic is perhaps the most important public health mission of our time. Maine leads the way in many areas.

There are few children I encounter who do not know about the 5-2-1-0 approach to healthy living (each day strive for: five servings of fruits or vegetables, two hours or less of TV/Internet/texting time, one hour of physical activity and zero sugary drinks).

This is the core message of Maine’s own Let’s Go! program, lead by Dr. Victoria Rogers. It has been replicated in communities around the country and helped inspire first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. This week, Portland is making an important contribution to the cause, one that many other cities have been unwilling or unable to achieve. Only with such bold steps will we have a chance for a nation in which childhood obesity is rare and children who condemn water rarer still.

– Special to the Press Herald


Correction: This column was revised at 10:20 a.m., Aug. 9, 2011, to correct spelling of author’s name.  It is Michael Dedekian, M.D.