Dr Lu Qi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health and has recently published research on the links between genetic obesity and sugary drinks
- Sugary drinks are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
- The term “soft drink” refers to any beverage with added sugar or other sweetener, and includes soda, fruit punch, lemonade and other “ades,” sweetened powdered drinks, and sports and energy drinks.
- People who drink sugary beverages do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from solid food, and studies show that people consuming sugary beverages don’t compensate for their high caloric content by eating less food.
- Surprisingly, fruit juice is not a better option. Even though it has more nutrients, it contains as much sugar (though from naturally occurring fruit sugars rather than added sugar) and calories as soft drinks.
- A 2014 study showed that consumers drinking sweetened beverages — whether low-calorie or not — tend to have an overall lower dietary quality.
Two out of three adults and one out of three children in the United States are overweight or obese, (29) and the nation spends an estimated $190 billion a year treating obesity-related health conditions. (30) Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. (31) On any given day, half the people in the U.S. consume sugary drinks; 1 in 4 consume at least 200 calories from such drinks; and 5% drink at least 567 calories—equivalent to four cans of soda. (32)
According to figures from the beverage industry, soft drink makers produce 10.4 billion gallons of sugary soda pop each year. (33) That’s enough to serve every American a 12-ounce can every day, 365 days a year.
The role of marketing
- Sugary drinks (soda, energy, sports drinks) are the top calorie source in teens’ diets (226 calories per day), beating out pizza (213 calories per day). (34)
- From 1989 to 2008, calories consumed in the form of sugary beverages increased by 60% in children ages 6 to 11, and the percentage of children consuming them rose from 79% to 91%. (35)
Beverage companies in the US spend billions of dollars marketing carbonated beverages, with a significant portion of marketing aimed directly at youth ages 2–17. (36) Each year, youth see hundreds of television ads for sugar-containing drinks. The beverage industry, however, generally rebuffs suggestions that its products and marketing tactics play any role in the obesity epidemic. (37)
Studies funded by the beverage industry are four to eight times more likely to show a finding favorable to industry than independently-funded studies. (38)
In 2013, Coke launched an “anti-obesity” advertisement recognizing that sweetened soda and many other foods and drinks have contributed to the obesity epidemic. Coke advertised its wide array of calorie-free beverages and encouraged individuals to take responsibility for their own drink choices and weight. Responses to the advertisement were mixed, with many experts calling it misleading and inaccurate in stating the health dangers of soda.
Soft drinks and weight
- The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories, almost all of them from sugar, usually high-fructose corn syrup. That’s the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of table sugar. If you were to drink just one can of a sugar-sweetened soft drink every day, and not cut back on calories elsewhere, you could gain up to 5 pounds in a year.
- Drinking water in place of SSBs or fruit juices is associated with lower long-term weight gain. (39)
- A recent study found that consumption of calorie-sweetened beverages has continued to increase and may play a role in the obesity epidemic, metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease, whereas reducing intake of soft drinks is associated with less weight gain and metabolic improvement. (40)
Dozens of studies have explored possible links between soft drinks and weight, and they consistently show that increased consumption of soft drinks is associated with increased energy (caloric) intake.
- One meta-analysis of 88 studies showed that the effect appeared to be stronger in women. (41)
- Studies in children and adults have found that reducing sugary drink consumption can lead to better weight control among those who are initially overweight. (42,43)
- An 18-month trial involving 641 primarily normal-weight children randomly assigned to receive either a sugar-free, artificially sweetened beverage (sugar-free group) or a similar sugar-containing beverage (sugar group) found that replacement of sugar-containing beverages with noncaloric beverages reduced weight gain and fat accumulation in the normal-weight children. (44)
- 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. (45)
- A recent groundbreaking study of 33,097 individuals showed that those that, among people with a genetic predisposition for obesity, those who drank sugary drinks were more likely to be obese than those who did not. This is a very important study because it suggests that genetic risk for obesity does not need to become a reality if healthy habits, like avoiding sugary drinks, are followed. On the other hand, genetic obesity risk seems to be amplified by consuming sugary drinks.
Read an interview by this study’s lead researcher.
Read a press release about this study.
The more ounces of sugary beverages a person has each day, the more calories he or she takes in later in the day. This is the opposite of what happens with solid food, as people tend to compensate for a large meal by taking in fewer calories at a later meal. This compensatory effect doesn’t seem to be present after consuming soft drinks, for several possible reasons:
- Fluids don’t provide the same feeling of fullness or satisfaction as solid foods, as the body doesn’t “register” liquid calories as it does calories from solid food. This may prompt a person to keep eating even after an intake of a high-calorie drink.
- It is possible that sweet-tasting soft drinks—regardless of whether they are sweetened with sugar or a calorie-free sugar substitute—might stimulate the appetite for other sweet, high-carbohydrate foods.
- Even though soda may contain more sugar than a cookie, because people think of soda as a drink and a cookie as a dessert they are more likely to limit food than beverages.
How much sugar is in soda and other beverages?
The Nutrition Source created How Sweet Is It?, a guide to help consumers understand the amount of sugar and calories in soda, juice, sports drinks, and other popular beverages
The front of the guide shows the number of teaspoons of sugar found in various drinks.
The back of the guide has a more comprehensive list of common beverages and their sugar and calorie content.
The guide includes beverages that are sweetened with added sugars, as well as beverages that are naturally high in sugar, such as juice.
It does not include “diet” drinks that are partly or entirely sweetened with artificial sweeteners or stevia (a natural calorie-free sweetener). As you review the guide, keep the following in mind:
- The best-choice beverages are those that fall in the green category—drinks that have little or no sugar added to them, such as water, sparkling water, coffee, or tea.
- Drinks that fall in the red category should be drunk infrequently and sparingly, if at all. These beverages have much more than 12 grams of sugar in a 12 ounce serving, and some have upwards of 40 grams of sugar—equivalent to about 10 teaspoons of sugar—and 200 or more calories in a 12-ounce serving.
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