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A recent visit to a local restaurant in Lancaster found me waiting behind three wide bodies blocking the tea dispensers. Despite tilting the sweet tea canister 45 degrees they found none to be had, so they waited for it to be filled. It didn’t enter their minds to try unsweet tea just as it wouldn’t have entered mine several years ago.
All my life I derided unsweet tea as “yankee tea” and considered most anyone who drank it from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. I felt strongly that there was something wrong with people who didn’t drink sweet tea. When the South Carolina band Cravin’ Melon proclaimed in song that “on the eighth day God created sweet tea” I was in complete agreement. Then one day I observed the amount of sugar that goes into making a gallon of it. Soon thereafter my wife had an easier time converting me to unsweet.
That’s my story, but from looking at the waistlines at Walmart these days there appear to be few other converts. Southerners are getting fatter every year. In fact, eight of the 10 states with the greatest levels of obesity are in the southeastern U.S. (Michigan is an outlier, but no one works up there anymore.) Surely sweet tea is a factor in our expansion.
Southerners are also at the forefront of the national type 2 diabetes epidemic. A disease largely influenced by our decisions, diabetes is killing thousands of us prematurely and leading to blindness and amputations in many others. It is also driving us deeper into debt and sponging already declining dollars away from higher education, public safety and other necessary government responsibilities. Taken together, obesity’s cost in South Carolina lives and dollars likely far exceeds the damage Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman inflicted here 145 years ago.
From observing the state of physical fitness in our state, it’s discernable that most people don’t care about their health from the standpoint of its cost to society. Some would argue that education regarding proper eating habits is a factor. Really, though, most everyone knows which foods contribute to obesity, and that a sedentary lifestyle makes one fat. What they may not know is that type 2 diabetes has an almost 90 percent less likely occurrence in people of normal weight who exercise, have a healthy diet and don’t smoke. An easy first step to avoiding this terrible disease is to change one’s drink of choice to unsweet tea.
In closing, let me say that what people put in their bodies is their business so long as it doesn’t cause them to hurt others and they pay for the health consequences. As with all aspects of life, moderation and balance are the keys. There are a lot worse things a person can drink than sweet tea. In fact, the sugar in tea is less harmful than the high fructose corn syrup and chemicals in soft drinks. It is easy, however, to load up on a lot of empty calories chugging sweet tea.
If you drink copious quantities of sweet tea or soft drinks and would like to become healthier try unsweet tea for a month. One can find great tasting unsweet tea at Chick-fil-A and on crushed ice at Sonic Drive In and Zaxbys. Most “meat and threes” and other local restaurants make the drink well, too.
I drank thousands of gallons of sweet tea more than 40 years. If I can be happily converted, then others can as well.
Yes, there is still a tinge of betrayal to the South when I order unsweet tea among friends, but I feel much better after the meal and other converts will too.
Greg Gregory is a local businessman and former state senator.