When you super size that soda drink, it's surprising what that can do to you as far as adding on calories. —Rep. Dixon Pitcher
SALT LAKE CITY — Every morning, Ken Ekker fills his 100-ounce drink jug at a convenience store.
"I've been filling this thing up for a good five or six years now," the West Jordan construction worker said, adding that he'd rather not have to stop working to get a refill later in the day.
And while Ekker doesn't appear overweight, he's one of a growing number of Americans contributing to the overconsumption of soft drinks, an issue experts believe is making people fat.
Not only are people drinking more soda in general, but portion sizes have increased dramatically and the cost per ounce has plummeted, making it more accessible than ever before, said Patrice Isabella, a dietitian with the Utah Department of Health's Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity program.
Americans consumed 13.8 billion gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages in 2009, which is roughly 70,000 calories per person, according to a recent publication in the journal Health Affairs. The numbers are directly correlated with growing waistlines across the country, as the overweight and obese populations are higher than ever before.
"Soft drinks contribute significantly nationwide to the number of empty calories consumed by adults and children and it is aggressively marketed to children," Isabella said. "It's a problem because the body doesn't regulate very well when calories are consumed in liquid form, which puts us at a significant risk for obesity."
Obesity is at an all-time high in Utah, with more than 60 percent of the population carrying more weight than is ideal, according to the health department. That rate has more than doubled since 1989, but remains below the national average of about 63.1 percent of the population being overweight or obese.
State and national governments have tossed around various ideas to deal with America's obesity epidemic, specifically involving soft drinks. But Congress is now addressing legislation that may prohibit the use of federal funds to combat big advertising pushes by the food and beverage industry.
Private organizations have effected changes, such as better labels on beverages and more healthier options in schools, but until now, governments have laid low on the matter.
New York City officials this week announced an intention to impose a ban on the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces at all restaurants, sports arenas, movie theaters and street carts. The action is intended to increase public health, but won't take effect until sometime next year.
"If we want something big, we should be able to buy something big, especially if we're willing to pay for it," said Salt Lake resident Tammy Jenkins. "I just don't feel like they have the right to make that choice for us. I understand the purpose, but I also agree with the fact that I'm an adult."
Isabella said such a move to restrict sales isn't likely in Utah, due to the "anti-regulatory political atmosphere here." But tactics including higher prices for more soda or imposing a tax on sweetened beverages are more feasible and could have an impact on the rising levels of soft drink consumption.
In 2011, Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, floated a bill that would impose a 1 percent tax on soft drinks purchased throughout Utah. The additional revenue would have helped fund education, but lawmakers agreed not to introduce it, as it would raise taxes in the thick of an economic recession.
The self-declared "water guy" only drinks soda or juice on occasion, and said he has been flooded with information about the harmful effects of soft drinks since he introduced the bill last year.
"When you super size that soda drink, it's surprising what that can do to you as far as adding on calories. There's so much sugar in carbonated drinks," Pitcher said.
While he admits it will be a fight, he intends to run the bill again "when the timing is right."
"The amount of carbonation drinks that are available for adults and kids is astounding," he said. "It's out there and it contributes to the struggle that everybody fights every single day in keeping their weight under control."
In Utah, more obese people report drinking at least one full-sugar, carbonated beverage per day than those with an ideal body mass, Isabella said. A recent health department survey found that at least 25 percent of adults in Utah have a daily soda habit.
Teenage boys are twice as likely as girls to drink at least one can or bottle of soda per day, as 23 percent of 12th-grade boys and 12 percent of girls in the same age group admitted to the behavior.
Kary Woodruff, a dietitian at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray, said sweetened beverages sometimes constitute up to 40 percent of a child's total daily caloric intake, a drastic increase from years past.
"Research shows that a higher intake of calories from beverages tends to be related to higher weight gain," she said, adding that a more appropriate proportion for sweetened beverages in a diet is 10 percent or less.
"Even if we get a significant amount of calories from beverages, we still feel like we're still hungry and we continue eating because we don't regulate the fullness like we do with food calories," Woodruff said.
Kids who drink too much often also have a problem eating enough food, thereby missing out on much of the day's nutritional needs. And adults often also miss out on necessary nutrients by consuming too much sugar.
Even diet soda poses a risk, Woodruff said, as artificial sweeteners can lead to compensatory behaviors and generate cravings for other sweet foods. A high consumption of carbonated beverages can also be a risk factor for unhealthy bones and decreased heart health, among other problems.
"If people continue to use them, same with tobacco and alcohol, they continue to use these things in excess, it's their right to destroy their bodies," said University of Utah student Alex Pavia, who was drinking a diet soda. "I don't think they should, but it's their right."