Americans spend $297 billion dollars per year on carbonated soft drinks. That’s roughly $3,200 per family and as an average, Americans drink 2.6 sodas per day. For regular (non-diet) soda drinkers that 89 gallons of soda contains more than 80 pounds of sugar. Imagine eating 16 bags of sugar - which is basically what you’re doing if you drink 2.6 sodas per day for a year! What does all that soda give you besides that quick ‘pick me up’? How about increased risk of stroke, weight gain, hypertension and bone loss? About that weight gain - for simplicity let’s go with one soda per day, at 156 calories in a 12 ounce can. Calories we don’t need accumulate at one pound for every 3500 calories. If you changed nothing else, but added one soda per day you would gain 16 pounds in a year. “Safe”, you may think, “I only drink diet”. Not so fast. Diet soda has been proven to have the same health risks and then some. Read on for more info and a couple of surprising facts.
Hazards of regular soda. Almost everyone already knows that too much sugar is bad for you: Primarily because it causes us to pack on extra pounds. When you factor in diseases caused by obesity, like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity is the number one cause of death in the US. With Americans consuming 160 pounds of added sugar, per person, per year and roughly half that from soda, it’s easy to see why obesity is being called an epidemic. “But I’m not fat, so why is soda bad for me?” First, because fructose is poison. Your body has no use for it and your liver is forced to get to work converting it to fat to try and get rid of it. There are two kinds of sugar - glucose and fructose. Glucose is the good stuff (in reasonable quantities). Our brain loves it as is, and with minimal conversion our muscles use it right up. Fructose, again, is just trash; and as part of the conversion of fructose, our bodies produce uric acid. Heard of gout? This painful condition is caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints and/or feet and can make even just walking very difficult. The fat that the liver makes from fructose? Much of it is stored right at the source which is why non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is now a “Public Health crisis” in its own right and, just in the last decade, has started being diagnosed in children. If fatty liver disease and gout aren’t enough, we know that sugar also raises inflammation in the body as well as blood pressure, which may explain why two Harvard studies showed a direct correlation between soft drink consumption and risk of stroke. And then another study concluded that soda consumption is closely related to bone fractures in teenage girls - possibly because phosphoric acid (a common ingredient in sodas, especially colas), interferes with calcium metabolism and the associated building of bone mass. So soda consumption may weaken your bones, since we’re always sloughing off old bone cells and adding new ones. Research did also show, however, that people who drank a lot of soda tended to have lower calcium intakes. A 2004 study also showed that kids who drank more soda were more likely to break their arms - but the researchers of that study admited that those kids were less physically active, and physical activity is crucial for building strong bones. Everyone involved in the various studies linking sodas and bone health acknowledge the need for more research; but why not err on the side of caution, so to speak, and minimize your risks. All in all, sweetened soft drinks particularly soda, are full of ways that they negatively impact your health. Additionally, if you want to stick to the American Heart association’s recommendation to get 5% or less of your daily calories from added sugar, you might want to consider that for many people, that amount is less than one can of soda.
Diet soda. “Phew” You must be thinking “All that talk about sugar, but I’m safe with my diet soda”. Not as safe as you may think though. Bone loss, risk of stroke, weight gain and cardiovascular disease are all also implicated in diet soda consumption as well as regular soda consumption. So let’s talk about weight gain first. There are two trains of thought on this and while we really don’t understand the mechanisms completely yet, it is clear that people who drink diet soda are more likely to be overweight and to gain weight. While artificial sweeteners don’t have any calories for us they do feed the unhealthy bacteria in your gut. Streptococcus mutans, for example, thrives on saccharin and aspartame. One study found that after just four days of eating the equivalent of 10 packets of artificial sweetener per day, volunteers had altered gut bacteria - as well as impaired glucose tolerance. A more recent study indicates that artificial sweeteners may affect how your body reacts to the sugar and other fods, leading to elevated blood sugar levels, possible insulin resistance and weight gain. Other studies have already proven that overweight and obese people have significantly different gut bacteria than non-overweight people (they have higher levels of bad bacteria). It has also been shown that people who use artificial sweeteners tend to eat more calories in their meals than those who do not. So if you have this great metabolism you’re not worried about weight gain and you drink diet “just for the taste of it”, you’re okay, right? Maybe not. In case you skipped the paragraph about regular soda: Soda, particularly cola, lowers bone density. Well to be fair, it is associated with lower bone density. The actual causes of that association are still being studied, but a 2006 study did find that women who drank cola every day had 5% less bone density than those who did not drink cola daily. The next thing is your gut bacteria. I already mentioned it once regarding weight, but since our gut is where we make about 90% of our serotonin, wouldn’t you want to optimize that environment to help maximize your ‘feel good hormones’? Skipping artificial sweeteners that will throw our gut microflora out of whack just makes sense, especially since aspartame has been linked to higher rates of depression and even suicide, so why risk it? And then there’s cancer. A study that tracked a large number of people for more than 20 years found that men who drank more than one diet soda per day had significantly increased rates of bloodborne cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia. Although no association between bloodborne cancers and soda consumption was found in women in that study, there are enough studies that every artificial sweetener is implicated in at least one type of cancer in both genders. And, finally, there’s taste: Artificial sweeteners affect our ability to taste natural sweetness and enjoy food. Ever known someone who recently quit smoking and heard them describe how much better food suddenly tasted? Stopping use of artificial sweeteners has a similar effect and a recent study showed that after skipping artificial sweeteners for just six days, people’s ability to taste natural sweetness was reset to normal. On top of all that, I listened to a functional nutrition podcast this morning in which the practitioner had been working with an ‘older’ woman who had developed mild urinary incontinence and together they determined the cause was her diet soda addiction – yet the woman refused to entirely give up diet soda and felt that one instance a day was worth being able to have the diet soda!
We live in an amazing time with a dizzying array of soft drinks available: with or without carbonation, cola or non-cola, diet or regular. Flavored waters, seltzers, teas, energy drinks and the list goes on. So many choices and pretty much all have a few things in common - sugar or an even sweeter tasting substitute (remember, artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than the natural stuff). The next most common ingredient in sodas is sodium, or salt. Why? Two reasons: First, our taste buds love sugar/salt combos and, second, the saltiness will make you thirsty for more. What could be better way for manufacturers than ensuring that you come back for more of thier tasty commodity? Which brings us to the last ingredient- caffeine. The only reason it was ever put in soda was to keep people coming back (it is addictive after all). See our blog for more about caffeine, but while you’re mocking your coffee drinking friends for overpriced boutique coffee, remember that your soda consumption may give you just as much caffeine and just as many withdrawal symptoms when you quit suddenly.
When you’re thirsty, choose wisely and consider how many sodas you’ve already had today, or this week or this year. How many teaspoons or pounds of sugar would that be? Or how much of that sugar-free cancer causing chemical have you had? “Open happiness”, “Just for the taste of it”, “All the sugar and twice the caffeine!”, “That’s what I like”, etctera etcetera. Maybe a glass of water would do your body better.