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Cut Back the Sugar

If you live in RI, you might have have noticed the subtle new health campaign that was launched by the Rhode Island Department of Health on Monday.

cut back the sugar_bus

I know – who am I kidding? You can’t really miss these Mountain Dew colored buses. Just for a fun comparison, here is what the RIPTA buses normally look like:


If the huge spoonful of sugar on the side of the bus doesn’t make a statement, the lime green color certainly will.

The new campaign, which will run for 3 months, is aimed at raising awareness in parents of young children. But even though sugar sweetened beverages like soda are devoid of any nutritional value and have been linked to overweight and obesity, particularly in children (sources here and here), the campaign isn’t asking people to give them up altogether. Instead, the main message is to simply “cut back the sugar, one drink at a time.” Which, in my opinion, is at least a start.

For more information about sugar-sweetened beverages and Rhode Island’s campaign, please click here.

spoonfulofsugar_RIssb.jpgYou wouldn’t let your kids eat this much sugar. So why let them drink it?

I am not a soda drinker, and I don’t really like soda companies (I have other vices when it comes to sugar. Particularly when it’s combined with butter and chcolate). I’ve written my thoughts about soda and the way soda companies weasel advertise their way into our everyday lives before, and if anything, my feelings have only grown more negative since then.

I get that soda tastes good. And that lemonade is refreshing. And that you might actually need Gatorade to keep you hydrated/fueled during a long, hot run. But do kids really need to drink this stuff? There’s a big difference between 100% juice and a Capri Sun – which contains a lot of sugar. In an age of over-stimulation, do children really need another substance to make it worse?

I know what you may be thinking – I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent. And maybe if I was one, I wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with giving my children these drinks. Maybe.

But the point is that I don’t think people (myself included) often realize just how much sugar they’re drinking. It’s easy to guess with soda. We all know it isn’t good for us. But juice and other flavored drinks? Sometimes it’s deceptive.

arizona iced tea_sugarstacks.com.jpgDid you know a 24 oz can has 72 grams of sugar – and 270 calories, all from sugar?


Which is why I think that a campaign that raises awareness about these sugary drinks is important. And compared to the very graphic “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign launched in New York City a couple of years ago, these ads seem kind of tame.


In case you haven’t seen the NYC ads before, they basically show fat being poured from drink containers into glasses. Some ads I’ve seen have gone so far as to show a person actually drinking the disgusting fat globs. You can watch that lovely display here. It definitely leaves an impression. But is it believable?

I work in the field of public health. I’m bombarded on a daily basis with these types of messages. I know the risk factors for obesity and other chronic conditions like diabetes. And I know that the situation in this country is pretty serious.

So I’m biased. I like seeing things like this because the message is ingrained in me. In fact, I would actually like it if the ads went further. But I know not everyone feels the same. And the majority of people probably don’t think that a bus with a huge spoonful of sugar on the side is all that exciting. It’s okay – I know I’m a public health nerd.

cut back the sugar_bus2

Which is why I really want to know what you think of the advertisements and the campaign’s overall message. Like? Dislike? Do you think it could be effective? Or does it not really leave a lasting impression? Thoughts about how useful something like this is? Please share!

35 Responses to Cut Back the Sugar

  1. They conducted a similar effort in Boston city schools. They banned the sale of sports drinks and sodas in the schools. As a result of not having the drinks available at school, students lost a taste for them and decreased consumption of the drinks during non-school hours.
    Jessica Morrison´s last post ..Choosing the Right Race

  2. I have to be honest; I was raised on Coca Cola. We didn’t drink juice/water/milk in the house at all… but we weren’t obese or unhealthy… because we played OUTSIDE. I think that’s one of the biggest issues with children. In a world where we play on iPads, computers, iPhones, & all the other sofa-sitting electronics, those drink calories actually matter. When I was a kid, it didn’t matter because I was running/jumping/climbing stuff outside & expending the energy. Same thing for adults… it’s all about what you take in vs. what you expend during activity.

    I also wonder about the negative impact of being so “in your face” about it. I see stuff like this & it tends to make me react the exact opposite of the intended reaction. And truthfully, it’s 2011. People know what’s good/bad for them. No matter how many ads you put in front of people, none of it matters with no personal accountability/responsibility.
    Bonnie´s last post ..Emotional Conundrum

    • Hi Bonnie, thank you for sharing your perspective on this! First of all, I agree – exercise is definitely a part of it! I think that in general, lifestyles have become more sedentary, which contributes to the epidemic of overweight/obesity. But I guess the only thing I’d say to add to that point is that it isn’t only about what you take in/expend – no matter how active you are, there are certain foods/beverages that you don’t ever really need (like soda). I’m not saying that you have to give up those things altogether (I’ll be the first to admit I have a major sweet tooth and probably always will) but I also know that the cake I’m eating isn’t exactly good for me.

      I also agree that there could potentially be negative impacts to the ads being in your face (good point!). People generally don’t like to be told what to do, or have their habits judged by others. But on the other hand, we’re constantly bombarded with ads that claim some sort of health benefit to products that aren’t – like Sunny D, for example, when in reality high fructose corn syrup is the second ingredient. So I think it can be good to see ads that counter that message, and just aim to raise awareness.

      Anyway, a very long-winded response to say that I don’t think the ads are going to solve anything on their own. But I do think there’s a place for them in the big picture, and that things in this country won’t truly change unless we approach the problem from many different angles.

  3. I really like this campaign and the ads. I think the idea of cutting back one drink at a time is a lot more feasible than all at once. Its also a good comparison between what parents will let kid eat versus what they will let them drink.

    I also agree with you in that often we don’t realize how much sugar we are drinking. Having it spelled out can be kind of powerful.

  4. I like it! I work in public health (nutrition education for our regional food bank) and I I use tube and sugar models to show people how much sugar is in their drinks and they are always so shocked. I think visuals like that really help them have a better understanding of what is going in their body!

    • Yes! Visuals are huge. It’s one thing to tell people something has a lot of sugar; another thing altogether to actually show them. I think the message really hits home when it’s staring you right in the face like that.

  5. I have never liked soda and I am not a huge juice person. I think some of it had to do with how I was raised. My parents were really health conscious and didn’t want me drinking all the sugary junk so I didn’t develop a taste for it early on. Not that I am perfect I do like a fair amount of junk food now but for some reason have never really developed a taste for wanting sugary drinks on a regular basis.

    I like the new ads. They are bright, attention catching, and spread a message I think is important. However, I have my doubts on the overall effectiveness of the campaign. I think it will make a certain segment of the population, the segment of the population that is already a little health conscious, think twice. However, I have my doubts about whether this message will impact those who don’t care about their health at all. I am not really sure how to get through to those people. I think that remains the most important question.
    Celia´s last post ..multiple marathons

    • 100% agree. To be completely honest, I’m not the biggest fan of purely educational campaigns. It’s really hard to change behavior, and just telling someone something isn’t going to make them change unless they’re ready and willing. But, like you said, I do think there will be a segment of the population that will see this and respond to it. And hopefully it will at least help raise awareness in others.

      But until there’s policy change that corresponds to the educational messages, the majority are not going to change their behavior.

  6. I really like the idea of these campaigns. I think it will send a great message, making people more aware of the sugar they consume. I stopped drinking as much juice a few years ago when I realized how many empty calories and sugar was taking in. I always put juice in the “healthy” bucket in my head, but the nutrition facts tell a different story.

    On the other hand, it will fall into the same category as placing calories on restaurant menus. Some people simply won’t care, which is unfortunate.
    Melissa´s last post ..3 Miles for Lunch

    • Yeah, juice is one of those things that gets marketed healthy all the time, even though so many brands contain more sugar than actual fruit! And in terms of the calories on restaurant menus – it’s interesting how many people report seeing them but not actually changing their order because of it.

  7. I love it. I don’t work in the field of public health, but I’ve had more than the average share of health issues (heart surgery at 24 FTW!) which probably gives me a hightened awareness of nutrition and health than your average person. Having said that: I love this. I truly believe we all have a responsibility to be better informed about how nutrition impacts our overall health. I bet most people won’t care that there is that much sugar in soda, but they should at least KNOW. Informed decision making is the first step to solving the obesity crisis.

    Annnnd off my soapbox!
    LizScott´s last post ..Fall Running, Continued

  8. Yes! Like!! I think this is awesome, because cutting out disgusting drinks like that is a small but effective step. I only HOPE it is ingrained in everyone, and hopefully someday soon people will also be bombarded with messages that show deceptive foods as well. Of course, “everything in moderation” … and sugary beverages seems like a GREAT first step.
    Alyssa´s last post ..Race Recap: Nike Women’s Half Marathon

  9. I think cutting out soda is one of the easiest behaviors changes people can make to get healthier. This ad campaign is a great reminder of why people should not give their kids soda.
    I never had soda growing up and as a result I don’t really like it.
    Liz´s last post ..Exercise commuting rocks

  10. I really like this campaign and I think the ad on the bus is a good one. I am not a soda or juice drinker. I have three kids and they drink water, soy milk (which has more sugar in it than you think!) and occasionally get juice boxes (at birthday parties, etc). You are SO right about the effects of sugar and how simple it would be to reduce our consumption of it by cutting back on drinks like this. I am always baffled by people giving their children soda and sugary drinks all the time. Not only do i feel it is not good for my kids physically, but also mentally. Sugar makes my kids crazy!
    Thanks for this great post. I’m new to your blog and am enjoying it so much!
    Jessica´s last post ..long run reflections & some taper thoughts

  11. LIKE! I think it’s a great start. I think a lot of the people that need to understand just how much sugar is in beverages like soda or sweetened fruit/tea/whatever drinks can learn a lot more from something visual like that. Just telling them that soda has an equivalent of X teaspoons of sugar probably doesn’t do much. But if they SEE it, then I feel like it may strike a different chord and stick with them. and maybe even change their behavior, which is the goal, right? Plus, the bus is a great conversation starter too. Great post, Lauren!
    Kelly´s last post ..The Week & Berries

  12. I think it’s great! People don’t pay enough attention to what they’re consuming, and it’s really easy to to end up drinking/eating things that are incredibly unhealthy. I agree that this is especially important for children, particularly when it comes to focusing in the classroom. I was never allowed to drink soda growing up, and I think that’s smart. It isn’t good for growing children, and cutting it out of your diet honestly makes a HUGE difference for people focused on weight loss. Anything we can do to put the focus on improving nutrition, particularly for children, is a public health win.
    Amanda @ Running On Waffles´s last post ..Hollywood Studios & Flying Fish Cafe

  13. 100% love this. Because of a late lunch (12:38), my 5th grade students are allowed to have a snack around 10:00. Guess what they’re eating a 10:00am? Doritos. Oreos. Arizona Tea’s (Number one of the two cans they brought). I’ve seen one piece of fruit in the past few weeks. It makes me so upset. I have a kindergartner who, during snack, has a specially delivered lunchbox by his mother every.single.day, with fresh cut fruit, sliced veggies, and a little yogurt. Um, hello?! The contrast is unbelievable. One morning I got so upset I started reading the ingredients out loud to the students. They thought it was funny because I could barely pronounce all the (processed invented) stuff. I told them if it’s not grown on the earth, and has ingredients you can’t say, then chances are you shouldn’t eat it.

    Ok I’m done. I’m really passionate about kids and healthy lifestyles. My school district is NUMBER ONE IN THE NATION for childhood obesity. I teach a yoga club on Fridays to try and reach some of the students. Sigh. Parents need to step up!!!
    kristin miller´s last post ..Merci Beaucoup

    • Yikes. That’s a pretty telling example. And shows that the intervention must come from all angles. Taking the junk out of school lunches/vending machines is good, but parents need to change their own buying behaviors as well.

  14. These ads are great! Like someone said above, people may know that soda is not the healthiest choice, but they probably don’t know how much sugar is truly in the soda. I doubt many people know the recommended amount of added sugar they should either or what is considered a high amount of sugar on nutrition labels. It’s definitely important to gear it towards childhood obesity because parents are feeding all this sugar to kids, and they’re learning these habits early in life.
    Lauren´s last post ..RDs and Eating Disorders

  15. We have an occasional soda here and there and my kids have a sip….they/we drink water all the time, no juice, etc. those drink boxes etc are terrible

    I just started working at an elementary school and I supervise kindergarten lunch and recess and I am SHOCKED at what these kids eat ( there is no nice way to say this…one girl has bigger boobs than me-she is obese and can’t keep up with her friends running on the playground). One kid brings chips and a Sprite for lunch!

  16. Love this! I remember seeing the ‘pouring on the pounds’ ads in the NYC subways. They are so visual and shocking, they caught my attention. Like you, I consider myself pretty health conscious and don’t drink soda anymore. However, I did drink soda all the time growing up, and often wonder how I consumed all that sugar and just how bad that was! Obviously, I’m not a parent, but I don’t think I’d let my kids drink soda or those false fruit juices. Or, I’d save them for special occasions. I love that cities are really working to drive awareness. Even if it doesn’t immediately change behavior, it gets the wheels turning. And that’s a pretty good start!
    Lindsay´s last post ..Soul Crushing Hills. Alternative title: Nike Women’s Half-Marathon Recap

  17. I think its great. I mean, I did drink Kool-Aid and Capri Sun growing up, but I also did gymnastics 4 hours a day or was “playing poor” outside (that was a game to us, I don’t know why). Something needs to be done about childhood obesity. I’ve seen an 8 year old that weighs as much as me and has glucose intolerance problems (basically headed towards type II diabetes). I’ve seen kids with fatty liver changes. Kids with hypertension. I don’t think some people know just how much sugar they are giving their kids or are buying themselves as adolescents. Someone or something needs to make them aware.
    Meggie´s last post ..Wizarding What’s Up Wednesday

  18. LIKE! This campaign is awesome. They should start this in all states. I don’t think people realize how bad half the stuff they put into their bodies really is. They just don’t pay attention. So, maybe if they don’t stop drinking soda completely maybe this advertisement will at least help them to cut back or at the very least encourage them to do their own research on what they are consuming.

  19. I like the campaign, but paid advertising is powerful. That’s why I don’t think these campaigns make a difference — soda companies spend exponentially more on ads to entice consumers.
    What I’ve seen as I raise my boys is that parents buy sugary junky drinks to please their children b/c they want to be liked. I hate soda and Capri-sun and all of those drinks and I don’t let my kids have them, but I can tell you that I’m not winning any popularity contests by doing so.
    Also, sugary drinks cost a lot less than juice or milk, which is an entirely different issue. You know we have a problem when giving our children orange soda over orange juice saves a few dollars!
    Rebecca´s last post ..Starting the Day on a Positive Note

    • Yes to all of this! The beverage industry spends millions of dollars on advertisements every year. There’s no way public health can compete with this. But I think we can do something – and having a counter-marketing campaign (no matter how small) is a step. But in order to truly change behavior, you also have to address the other issues, like the cost issue that you brought up.

  20. I like the idea, but I wonder how much people are in the dark about this problem vs. simply not caring/giving into instant gratification… I suppose it’ll make people on the fence think twice before popping open a can of cola.

    • I agree. I think there are a lot of people that just don’t care. Hopefully the campaign will activate those who are already on the fence, and then other strategies (like policy changes) will have more far-reaching affects.

  21. While campaigns like this are definitely a start, I don’t think they’re that helpful. I personally enjoy scare tactics, but I know they rarely leave a lasting impression on the consumer.

    Unfortunately, if we really want the public to limit their liquid sugar intake, I think the change will have to happen at the policy level. I’m all for a soda tax. Better yet, I wish companies were taxed for selling such unhealthy beverages. Companies would either have to increase the price of the product- which may not deter the consumer unfortunately- OR reduce the amount of added sugar, which would be the ideal option.

    Thanks for this post, Lauren! Definitely something interesting to think about. :)
    Jen´s last post ..Week 32 pregnancy update

    • I’m with you on that! But unfortunately the research showed that scare tactics didn’t have a lasting affect, and actually just turned people off (too bad, because I’m all for a campaign that really lays it all out there).

      I also agree with you on the policy change point. Education alone isn’t going to change behavior. At the most, it’ll reach a small portion of people who are already more activated. But I do think that it’s a good first step. Hopefully this will raise awareness to a point where the policies will be heard and then passed.

  22. I think that bus would make an impression on me, but I’m not sure about people who aren’t necessarily as educated (or possibly just don’t care??) on how bad lots of sugar is, especially for kids. From a social work perspective, I think a lot of the families who really need to hear this message are not worried about how many grams of sugar their child is consuming everyday. They’re worried about them eating at all, about making sure their family has health care and clothing. But then again, there probably is a demographic of people who do have their basic needs met and perhaps this would make them think twice about what their children are drinking.
    I really enjoy your public health posts! They always get me thinking.
    I hope your taper and the carbo loading is going well :)
    Corey´s last post ..Mixed Emotions

  23. I’ll be on the lookout for the buses! ;)

    I like the ad and think it will definitely get people to start thinking about it. I had a major Diet Coke vice in college – it was the first time I could buy soda on my own because we didn’t really have much of it in my house growing up (my Mom had a Diet Coke vice too, though, so maybe that’s why it stuck!). I think sodas can be a good thing if people are trying to wean them off other things (or from Coke to Diet Coke to seltzer, etc.) but long-term, they really don’t provide any nutritional value. I’m starting a placement in a middle school so I’m reallyyy interested to see what they eat for lunch!
    Erin @ Big Girl Feats´s last post ..One Year Ago.

  24. I love this campaign and I think its the start in the right direction. I would like to see more direct results with soda and obesity. My brother says there isn’t a proven study that drinking diet soda leads to any obesity, just regular soda.. but both scare me. I’ve known a few men who have bowling ball tummies and USUALLY it’s because they are completely addicted to sodas. When people stop drinking soda and are overweight, it seems it’s pretty easy to drop weight.

    I think this message is making parents think. Often parents are in a rush and busy and don’t think about the ingredients they are giving to their kids and how it may affect them later in life. My aunt works in food distribution for all public schools in Omaha and it’s amazing to see the changes she has already made in school systems. Kids are excited about the meals and they are eating LOCALLY with vegetables and fruits, something they weren’t getting in their diet before.

    I love posts like this- combines our two worlds : )
    Lizzy´s last post ..Butternut Squash Lasagna

  25. I definitely think there needs to be more advertising on this kind of stuff – even if it’s not scare tactics. There just needs to be more ads (on TV & radio – not just buses) letting people know what a healthy diet people means. Some of the highly educated people I work with have NO IDEA what kind of crap is in their food/drinks. One of my coworkers recently switched from drinking soda to drink gatorade to “cut out calories.” Ummm…what?

    I don’t give my soda and the only place they get juice is in school/daycare (it is juicy juice and they water it down). I would like to limit it as they grow older – but also not make a big out of them NOT having it. I think that just leads to kids going nuts when their parents around!!
    Michelle @ Crazy*Running*Legs´s last post ..Saturday Morning Motivation

  26. I like the overall statement that the ad campaign is making. Taking a small step to eliminate excess amounts of sugar is just one step in the journey toward better health. If you asked people to completely cut out soda and Capri Sun from their diets, they’d never make it. But one step at a time? Much easier to accomplish. You don’t run a marathon by jumping into a twenty mile run as your first long run, so thinking that people are going to automatically change every bad habit they’ve had for their entire lives doesn’t make that much sense.

    People most definitely have no idea how much sugar is really in what their drinking, and they often think that certain drinks are healthy for them, especially if it’s juice! Athletes drink Gatorade, so it must be good for you, right? I get irritated when people work out for 30 minutes and chug Gatorade…1) You don’t need it if that’s all you’re working out and 2) That’s a lot of sugar! Just drink some water! I worked as a camp counselor one summer, and I was SHOCKED at some of the drinks kids brought in their lunch…eight year olds had full cans of soda! Growing up, we were allowed to drink soda when we went out to eat (which was a fairly rare occasion) and on holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and our birthdays. Even then, I don’t think I could finish an entire can.

    I might be saying this because I’m not a parent, but parenting these days makes me cringe. We see it in the hospital and I see it when I’m out on the street…you’re there to be a parent, not a friend. You can say no…it’s your job to discipline! Sometimes parents expect me to get their kid to do something, but if you as a parent can’t make your kid do something, myself as a nurse definitely won’t have any luck.

    Sometimes I think the campaign ads like the ones in NYC are what we need…a bit of a slap in the face. Sometimes we hide reality from people when it really should be right out front. Doctors are scared to tell someone they’re fat and need to lose weight because it might hurt their feelings…it’s a HUGE medical issue! So many chronic illnesses can be solved by having a healthy weight with a good diet and exercise, which many people just need an education on. Prevention is so lacking in this country, especially when combined with ad campaigns for such unhealthy food and lifestyles…bananas need more promotion, for sure.
    Susan´s last post ..knowing when to say when

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