HALLOWELL – Obesity continues to be a major health challenge in Maine. But it will never be solved if we continue to deceive ourselves into thinking there’s a silver bullet to this complex problem.

It is misleading — never mind inaccurate — to suggest that there’s a simple cure. Thus, the city of Portland’s recent ad campaign attacking sugar-sweetened beverages (embraced by this paper) is a step in the wrong direction.

We know that achieving a healthy lifestyle means balancing the calories from all that you eat and drink with those you burn through physical activity. Some, however, want to focus only on “calories in.”

Yet, even if you take all sugar-sweetened beverages, they account for only 7 percent of the total calories in the average American’s diet, according to government data.

Sure, it’s easy to create scapegoats. Then nobody needs to do the difficult work of understanding and responding to the fundamental changes in our society over the past century that have made us all less active.

More physical activity always has to be part — if not the biggest part — of any effort to reduce obesity.

Maine historically has one of the lowest per capita consumption rates of carbonated soft drinks — 44th in the nation. On top of that, sales of regular soda have declined by 12.5 percent from 1999 to 2010, according to Beverage Digest.

This is due in part to consumers taking advantage of the many no- and low-calorie beverage options available, including bottled water. 

If there’s a unique link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, as some critics contend, then we ought to be seeing a decrease in Maine’s obesity rates. In fact, data from the Maine CDC indicates just the opposite. The number of adults and children who are overweight or obese continues to increase.

Given these facts, it’s disturbing that the city of Portland would use some of the $1.8 million of federal stimulus funds — taxpayer dollars that were intended to create jobs — to portray the consumption of our industry’s products in an over-the-top, outrageous manner that in no way reflects how people drink beverages.

We need to stop looking for simplistic and ineffective approaches to the obesity problem and rededicate ourselves to looking for solutions.

Here’s an example of how our approach has to change. Low- and no-calorie sports drinks can be a valuable source of nutrients for adults and high-school-aged students participating in athletics.

The American College of Sports Medicine has concluded in several studies that the addition of proper amounts of carbohydrates and electrolytes to a fluid replacement solution is recommended for exercise longer than an hour, because it does not significantly impair water delivery to the body and may enhance performance.

Despite this, some critics condemn sports drinks, claiming that they are unnecessary because people aren’t physically active enough to need the additional carbohydrates and electrolytes.

Do you suppose we might have more success reducing obesity if those critics were less focused on sports drinks and more focused on why people can’t spend an hour a day — or even a half hour — engaged in some form of exercise?

Undoubtedly, that’s a greater challenge. It’s more difficult to get people to change their lifestyle than the type of beverage they drink.

A real solution doesn’t seek scapegoats and won’t succeed simply by targeting certain foods or beverages.

Recognizing that everyone must do their part, our industry has worked to do our part.

Last year, beverage companies began placing larger calorie labels on the front of every can, bottle and pack we produce.

These labels will make it easier for consumers to access calorie information and to help them choose the beverage that’s right for them and their families.

The school beverage landscape also has changed due to our industry’s national School Beverage Guidelines. We recognize that schools are special places where parents want greater control over what their children eat and drink.

That’s why we voluntarily removed full-calorie soft drinks from all schools and replaced them with more lower-calorie, smaller-portion options.

It’s worth noting that local Maine distributors implemented a similar policy about 10 years ago — on their own and without any directive from any branch of state government.

Obesity is too complex an issue to address with simplistic sound bites and mischaracterizations. We must begin with an honest discussion about all the factors that contribute to the disturbing rate of obesity and how, collectively, we can solve this problem.

Otherwise, we never will.

– Special to the Press Herald