Imagine yourself putting 16 teaspoons of sugar in a bowl and then eating it. Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it? If you’re a lover of soft drinks, though, you should know that 16 teaspoons is the amount of sugar in a 20-ounce soft drink.
Over a year’s time, the extra calories from that one large soft drink will add up to about 25 pounds of added weight.
From the late 1970s to 2006, calories of sugar-sweetened drinks consumed in this country more than doubled. These drinks are now the primary source of added sugars in the American diet. Sweeteners in these drinks include sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup and fruit juice concentrates, all of which have similar effects on the body’s metabolism, including an increased risk of weight gain, the metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
During that same period from the late 1970s, obesity, particularly among children, has grown to epidemic proportions in this country.
One meta-analysis found that the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and body mass index in children and adolescents “was near zero” [American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, June, 2008]. This study, however, was produced by a research center that received financial support from the soft drink industry.
Other large cross-sectional studies and prospective cohort studies with long periods of follow-up “show a positive association between greater intake of (sugar sweetened beverages) and weight gain and obesity in both children and adults,” according to a 2006 article [American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August, 2006].
Admitting that more research is needed, public health officials believe that the evidence is strong enough to discourage excessive consumption of sugary drinks. Guidelines of the American Heart Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture call for consuming no more than 8 to 12 ounces a day of sugar-sweetened and naturally sweetened beverages.
The problem involves much more than extra calories and weight. A study that followed about 43,000 men for 22 years found that those who consumed 12 ounces or more of sugar-sweetened drinks a day had increased levels of harmful fats and inflammation and a 20 percent increased risk of heart disease.
Although 100 percent fruit juices sound like a virtuous alternative, these drinks have similar caloric content and, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has pointed out, “offer no nutrition advantage over whole fruit for children over 6 months of age.”
Beverages are often consumed for thirst or in a social situation without regard for hunger. Calorie-for-calorie, they tend to be less satiating than the equivalent amount of solid food. And the body doesn’t seem to register fluid calories the same as it does solid food. As a result, they tend to be added on top of other calories rather than substituting for them.
Adults, of course, are just as vulnerable as children and adolescents to the hazards of sugar-sweetened beverages and often seek out diet or zero-calorie versions of their favorite beverage.
A diet drink certainly has fewer calories but, in most cases, more sweetness. And separating sweetness from calorie consumption may tend to fool the body, confusing the natural mechanisms that govern appetite. One laboratory study found that rats given food sweetened with saccharin took in more calories and gained more weight than those eating sugar-sweetened food.
The most sensible approach, no matter what type of beverage you drink regularly, is to cut back, which is never easy, and may take some time as well as will power. Have a plan.
If you’re the type of person who walks around clutching a can of pop, think about re-setting that image. Carry a bottle of water instead.
Your body can get by without any added sugar so think of your drink as a treat, a substitute for an occasional candy bar or dessert rather than an add-on or a mindless habit.
Pure unadulterated water right from the tap is arguably the healthiest beverage you can find. If it’s too bland for you, just squeeze a bit of lemon or lime into your glass.
Drink 20 ounces of water — or even more — every day. Zero calories, zero sweeteners and 100 percent healthy.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.