The Bitter Truth About Sugar-Sweetened Beverages


You’re midway through your workday, and you start to crash. Water won’t cut it, so you reach for a soda at the nearest vending machine. The sugary drink will put the pep back in your step, but do you know how it will affect your body in the long-term? Studies show that these drinks can lead to increased risk of obesity and other serious health issues.

There have been countless studies on the topic of sugary drinks, and lately with the addition of the new My Plate food pyramid, awareness has increased about the health risks of sugar consumption, resulting in a push for the avoidance of sugary beverages.  This issue is so prevalent that the first tip on My Plate’s “Tips For Healthy Eating When Eating Out” page reads: “As a beverage choice, ask for water…or other drinks without added sugars.”  With diagnoses of diabetes and obesity increasing exponentially–especially in children–the war on sugar seems to be stronger than ever.

So why is the fight against sugar so strong?  These studies highlight just how devastating the effects of sugar can be on your body and mind.

One 2010 study summarizes the main effects very well.  It was found that sugar-sweetened beverages are a main cause of weight gain and can lead to the risk of cardiovascular disease and type-two diabetes (Vasanti, et al.).  This study suggests that limiting consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages can reduce this risk, by improving insulin sensitivity and reducing blood pressure.  The risks can be especially high for people who are genetically predisposed to diabetes, who are found to have a higher risk of weight gain due to the consumption of sugary beverages than those who are not predisposed (Qi, et al., 2012).

In addition to increasing the risk of obesity and diabetes, sugary drinks have been found to effect metabolic rates, as well as the risk of pancreatic cancer.  Findings from a 2013 study indicate that consumption of sugary drinks led to metabolic syndrome and other metabolic disorders (Barrio-Lopez, et al., 2013). Another study examined the effects of sugar-sweetened drinks on risk of pancreatic cancer, and found that women with an insulin resistance due to sugar intake had a higher risk of pancreatic cancer (Schernhammer, et al., 2005).

The effects can be even worse for children, not only because children are so exposed to sugary drinks– seeing them at school, birthday parties, and other social functions– but also because sugary drinks are marketed specifically to young children.  These factors make it extremely difficult for parents to avoid these kinds of beverages.  However, parents need to understand the severity of their children’s health risks, and to realize that there are alternatives to sugary drinks.  The replacement of these sugary drinks can reduce children’s risk of obesity or diabetes, and could prolong their lives.  As stated by the 2010 study, limiting sugar-sweetened beverage intake of children and adolescents is imperative in the maintenance of their health, especially because obesity is so prevalent in these age groups.  Another study found that in children ages 4 to 11, the replacement of sugar-containing beverages with noncaloric beverages reduced weight gain in normal-weight children (de Ruyet, et al., 2012).

What is the lesson here? Choose your drinks wisely.  I’ll be honest, when I’m fading quickly in the middle of the day, I will drink an iced coffee every once in a while, or even a soda or a lemonade-iced tea.  As I researched and wrote this article, for example, I grabbed a lemonade from the fridge without even considering the implications.

All it takes is mindfulness.  We need to be more aware of the decisions we make, especially when it comes to things we are putting inside our bodies.  As the Choose Health LA Campaign notes, “You wouldn’t eat 22 packets of sugar.  So why are you drinking them?”  The campaign’s website offers many great resources, including the Sugar Calculator, which tells you how many packets of sugar you are eating a week by drinking the sugary drinks you choose to incorporate into your daily routine.  With 2 coffee drinks, at least 1 iced tea, and 1 sports drink every week, I would be consuming 64 packets of sugar!   I dare you to try this, to see just how many packets of sugar you might be consuming every week.  But be warned– sometimes the truth isn’t so sweet!

1 Vasanti, M.S., MSc, Popkin, B.M., PhD, Bray, G.A., MD, Despres, J.P., PhD, and Hu, F.B, MD, PhD. (2013). Sugar sweetened beverages, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease risk. Circulation. 121(11): 1356-1364. doi:  10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.876185.

2 Qi, Q., Chu, A.Y., Jensen, M.K., Curban, G.C., Pasquale, L.R., Ridker, P.M., Hunter, D.J., Willett, W.C., Rimm, E.B., Chasman, D.I., Hu, F.B., and Qi, L. (2012). Sugar-sweetened beverages and genetic risk of obesity. New England Journal of Medicine. 367(15): 1387-96. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1203039. Epub 2012 Sep 21.

3 Barrio-Lopez, M.T., Martinez-Gonzalez, M.A., Fernandez-Montero, A., Beunza, J.J., Zazpe, I., and Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2013). Prospective study of changes in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and the incidence of the metabolic sundryme and its components: the SUN cohort. British Journal of Nutrition. (E-published ahead of print): 1-10.

4 Schernhammer, E.S., Hu, F.B., Giovannucci, E., Michaud, D.S., Colditz, G.A., Stampfer, M.J., and Fuchs, C.S. (2005). Sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption and risk of pancreatic cancer in two prospective cohorts. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prevention. 14(9): 2098-2105.

5 de Ruyter, J.C., Olthof, M.R., Seidell, J.C., and Katan, M.B. (2012). A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children. New England Journal of Medicine. 367(15): 1397-1406. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1203034. Epub 2012 Sep 21.

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