Public health school’s seminar series explores why Americans eat excess sugar

Courtesy of Allison Sylvetsky Meni

Allison Sylvetsky Meni, an assistant professor in the exercise and nutrition sciences department, said the seminars – which she helped organize – are meant to take a more interdisciplinary look at addressing excessive sugar consumption.

A new University seminar series may have students rethinking their late-night visits to Captain Cookie.

The Milken Institute School of Public Health is hosting a three-part seminar series this semester on how to mitigate excessive sugar and sweetener consumption in the U.S. and whether government regulations or alternative sweeteners are valid solutions. Organizers said the seminars will emphasize the need for an interdisciplinary solution involving the government, academia, the food industry and nonprofit organizations.

The seminars – which began Feb. 22 and will continue March 22 and April 26 – are being run through a partnership between the exercise and nutrition sciences department in the public health school, the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, the GW Food Institute and the GW Institute for Corporate Responsibility.

Allison Sylvetsky Meni, an assistant professor at the exercise and nutrition sciences department, said the seminars – which she helped organize – are meant to encourage students and public health officials to take a broader, more interdisciplinary look at addressing excessive sugar consumption.

“Often in public health, we think that obviously people should eat less sugars, therefore, we should tax it,” she said. “Actually implementing something like that, there’s a lot of stakeholder relationships that come into play.”

Average sugar consumption in the U.S. has plateaued in recent years at 358 calories per day – well above the recommended 200 calories per day on a 2,000 calorie diet, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eating excessive amounts of sugar can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and even depression.

At the first installment of the seminar last week, Michael Long, an assistant professor of prevention and community health, and Richard Black, a consultant and former executive at PepsiCo, discussed the impact of sugar sweetened beverage taxes on health and business sectors.

Meni said about 60 people attended the seminar – held in the school’s flagship building – and 180 tuned in for the webcast.

The next two installments of the series will focus on why it’s so difficult to limit sugar use. It will include a panel discussing whether sugar is addictive featuring experts in neuroscience and psychology and an official from The Sugar Association.

The final discussion will be centered on the use of alternative sweeteners and whether they should be part of the solution to reduce sugar intake.

Kim Robien, an associate professor at the exercise and nutrition sciences department and a moderator for the second seminar in the series, said the first seminar ran as planned with diverse opinions and backgrounds on the panel, including representatives from academia and the food industry.

Robien said college students can be especially vulnerable to eating excessive amounts of sugar.

The University’s dining plan encourages students to go to restaurants or get take-out and avoid the long lines and expensive price tags at Whole Foods, she said. Avoiding grocery shopping leaves students unable to easily monitor their salt and added sugar intake, Robien said.

“In public health a lot of what we’re trying to do is to change the environment, to support healthy habits,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why we’re trying to do this series, is to get people thinking and talking about it more broadly.”

Bill Dietz, chair and director of the Redstone Center, which provided additional funding for the seminars, said obesity among young adults – 20 to 39 year-olds – has been severe in recent years.

“As you think about strategies or locations where you can begin to have an impact on preventing obesity in young adults, a healthy campus is one of those,” he said.

Liz Konneker contributed reporting.

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