Do You Need a Reason to Stop Drinking Soda? Here It Is.

The findings of a new study add to the growing body of evidence that proves soda and sugary drinks can contribute to serious health problems.

According to research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages every day is associated with an increase in a particularly nasty type of body fat that has been linked with diabetes, heart disease risk, and a multitude of other health issues.

Data from the Framingham Heart Study, which is a federally supported, ongoing research project that has advanced the understanding of cardiovascular disease, showed that among middle-aged adults, there is a direct correlation between greater sweetened beverage consumption and increased visceral fat.

Visceral fat – also known as “deep fat” – wraps around your internal organs, including your liver, pancreas, kidneys, and intestines. It is much more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (the fat that you can see – the “inch you can pinch”). That’s because visceral fat (which gets its name from viscera, which refers to the internal organs in the abdomen) affects how our hormones function and is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance – which may increase Type 2 diabetes and heart disease risk.

Excess visceral fat is also linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, stroke, dementia, depression, arthritis, obesity, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disorders.

You don’t have to be visibly overweight to be at risk. Even relatively thin people can have too much visceral fat, which is why it is often referred to as “hidden” belly fat.

For the new study, researchers looked at both sugar-sweetened beverage and diet soda consumption. The researchers did not observe this association with diet soda, which is often promoted as low in calories and sugar. (Don’t think this means guzzling diet soda with abandon is okay: it carries health risks too.)

Caroline S. Fox, M.D., M.P.H, lead study author and a former investigator with the Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, had this to say about the findings:

There is evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Our message to consumers is to follow the current dietary guidelines and to be mindful of how much sugar-sweetened beverages they drink. To policy makers, this study adds another piece of evidence to the growing body of research suggesting sugar-sweetened beverages may be harmful to our health.

I’m really not sure which “current dietary guidelines” Dr. Fox is referring to, but if she means the government guidelines, well…that isn’t very helpful. Last week, the federal government released it’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and nutrition experts are already expressing disappointment:

“A lot of people are deeply troubled by it,” says Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “There are very clear scientific conclusions about red meat and soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages that were basically absent from the final Dietary Guidelines.”

What exactly do the guidelines say about sugar intake?

Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars.

Oh, okay! That clears everything up!

Or does it?

In order for this recommendation to be useful, you’d first have to know the following things:

We also know that people tend to greatly underestimate how many calories they actually eat:

Nutrition scientists have put enormous effort into trying to evaluate the magnitude of reporting errors. They find that people underestimate their true calorie intake by astonishing percentages, typically 30 percent, with a range of 10 to 45 percent depending on such factors as age, sex, body composition, and socioeconomic status.

Even if you tried to meticulously track every drop and crumb you consume, you’d likely forget something. After all, how many of us mindlessly nibble and pick at things throughout the day?

Not to mention…who has the time or dedication to do that (let’s be honest)?

Dr. Ayala Laufer-Cahana points out that almost half of the added sugars in the American diet are from beverages, according to the government’s report, and the guidelines could have been more clear:

A more straightforward and less puzzling way to tip Americans towards limiting added sugar would have been to provide a recommendation such as: “choose drinks that contain no added sugars (most of the time)” and “eat sweets and desserts infrequently” — which would fall in line with the DGA’s other recommendations to eat a “variety of vegetables” and “fruits, especially whole fruits.”

Liquid sources of sugar are especially troublesome because of the method of delivery – how long does it take to chug a bottle of soda? And, when you consume a sugary drink, is it in place of food, or in addition to it? Studies have shown that people who drink soda usually consume significantly more calories than people who avoid the stuff.

Sucrose and high fructose corn syrup are two of the most common sugars found in these drinks, which include caffeinated and de-caffeinated soda, carbonated and non-carbonated drinks with added sugar, fruit juice, and lemonade. While juice has more nutrients, it contains as much sugar – or MORE sugar – than soda. Cranberry, pomegranate, grape, and orange juice contain 48 to 63 grams of sugar per 12 ounce serving.

Americans consume a LOT of sugar. In 2001 to 2004, the usual daily intake of added sugars for Americans was 22.2 teaspoons per day, which is an extra 355 calories.

A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar and 140 calories. And every single calorie comes from…sugar. This means that for a person who should consume 1,400 calories per day, ONE can of regular Coke would meet the government’s guideline of “consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars.”

So why don’t the guidelines specifically say something like “limit sugar-sweetened beverages,” since they ARE the primary source of added sugar in American diets?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course: the sugar industry is large, powerful, and wealthy, and it influences policy, as researcher Gretchen Goldman explains:

They have attacked scientific research that is inconvenient to their bottom line, hired scientists to buy credibility, and paid academic scientists to carry their talking points. They have poured money into policy debates and misled decision makers about how sugar affects our health.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently investigated Big Sugar and revealed the tactics the industry uses to deceive the public:

Attacking the science: Planning to “bury the data” if the science is inconvenient, threatening to suspend funding to the World Health Organization, seeking to discredit scientific findings by intimidating the study authors

Spreading misinformation: Featuring misinformation on industry websites, promoting misinformation through research institutes, using trade associations, front groups, and PR firms to deceive the public

Deploying industry scientists: Exploiting science communication and blogging communities, failing to disclose scientists’ conflicts of interest, hijacking scientific language for product promotion

Influencing academia: Buying credibility through academic scientists, funding research to support their preconceived positions, paying academic scientists to persuade other scientists of sugar interests’ positions

Undermining policy: Pouring lobbying dollars into federal, state, and local sugar policy debates, supporting political candidates in influential positions, influencing rule making at federal agencies

But, this is nothing new.

Last year, Coca-Cola bought teamed up with some prominent scientists who have quite a bit of influence in the nutrition and weight loss fields of research to get them to push propaganda about soda being part of a healthful diet. Those Coca-Cola funded “experts” actually tried to make the claim – it is hard for me to even type this because it is such an outrageous lie – that there is “virtually no compelling evidence” that poor eating habits are to blame for the obesity epidemic. Of course, an ENORMOUS amount of scientific research contradicts that claim. Here’s one example, from Harvard’s Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet:

Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

A 20-year study on 120,000 men and women found that people who increased their sugary drink consumption by one 12-ounce serving per day gained more weight over time – on average, an extra pound every 4 years—than people who did not change their intake. Other studies have found a significant link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain in children.

Back to the new research

A total of 1,003 study participants, average age 45 and nearly half women, answered food questionnaires and underwent CT scans at the start and the end of the study to measure body fat changes.

They were ranked into four categories: non-drinkers; occasional drinkers (sugar-sweetened beverages once a month or less than once a week); frequent drinkers (once a week or less than once a day); and those who drank at least one sugar sweetened beverage daily.

Over a six-year follow-up period, independent of the participants’ age, gender, physical activity, body mass index and other factors, they found visceral fat volume increased by:

658 centimeters cubed for non-drinkers;

649 centimeters cubed for occasional drinkers;

707 centimeters cubed for frequent drinkers; and

852 centimeters cubed for those who drank one beverage daily.

Fructose, which makes up much of the sugar used to sweeten soft drinks, is metabolized by the liver and from there it can raise levels of triglycerides, which are a type of fat found in the blood.

This can either directly affect fat production or do it indirectly by affecting how insulin is produced and works. Insulin helps the body process sugar.

The new findings back up other studies that show added sugar not only makes people over-fat, but can worsen the causes of heart disease and make tumors grow faster.

If you are thinking “Well, I’ll just drink diet soda instead,” keep reading…

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years as those who didn’t drink diet soda. The study analyzed data from 749 people ages 65 and older who were asked, every couple of years, how many cans of soda they drank a day, and how many of those sodas were diet or regular.

Those answers ended up being extremely predictive of abdominal-fat gain, even after the researchers adjusted for factors like diabetes, smoking and levels of physical activity. People who didn’t drink diet soda gained about 0.8 in. around their waists over the study period, but people who drank diet soda daily gained 3.2 in. Those who fell in the middle — occasional drinkers of diet soda — gained about 1.8 in.

The study authors called these results “striking,” because they aren’t entirely sure why diet soda seems to cause weight gain. They have some ideas, though: sugar-free sodas contain substances that sweeten up soda at 200-600 times the sweetness of sugar.

Dr. Helen Hazuda, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the study’s senior author, elaborates:

Regular sugar has caloric consequences. Your body is used to knowing that a sweet taste means you are ingesting energy in the form of calories that, if you don’t burn them off, is going to convert to fat.

Regular sugar triggers satiety (a sense of fullness or satisfaction), but artificial sweeteners do not – they confuse our bodies and weaken the link in our brains between sweetness and calories, which can lead to weight gain and cravings for sweeter and sweeter treats.

And, it is possible that yet another mechanism is involved. One study showed that artificial sweeteners actually changed the gut bacteria of mice in ways that made them vulnerable to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance – both of which can lead to weight gain. And other research suggests that artificial sweeteners are associated with a drop in the appetite-regulating hormone leptin, which is a hormone that inhibits hunger.

Other studies have also linked the consumption of artificial sweeteners to diabetes and gut microbe balance:

Researchers conducted a series of experiments in both mice and humans, repeating them several times to check their results. They used three common artificial sweeteners – saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame.

The artificial sweeteners exert this effect by altering the balance of gut microbes, they said.

Then the researchers analyzed around 400 people and found that the gut bacteria in those who consumed artificial sweeteners was significantly different from those who did not. They also found non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) eaters had “markers” for diabetes, including raised blood sugar levels and glucose intolerance.

Smaller studies have also shown an association between the use of artificial sweeteners and the occurrence of metabolic disorders.

In conclusion…

If you want to drink soda or other sugary drinks, by all means, please do. I’m not here to tell you what to do with your body.

But if you DO want to reduce or eliminate your consumption of sugar and artificially sweetened drinks and don’t think you can give them up cold turkey, try the tricks listed at the end of this article to make the process easier: Think Sugary Drinks Are Safe If You Are Not Obese? Think Again

Reducing or removing soda and sugary drinks from your life could make a huge difference in your health.

You can do it – you don’t need all that sugar.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you are sweet enough already.

Related Reading

Coca-Cola: We’re Not Making You Fat, You’re Just Lazy!

Think Sugary Drinks Are Safe If You Are Not Obese? Think Again

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Photo credit: VINTAGE SODAS 3 via photopin (license)

About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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