Soft Drinks Get No Respect

            If you are one of the few that have sworn off of sugary drinks in your diet then what follows isn’t for you. For the majority of people that cling to their sodas and other sugary drinks, please read on.  There are many reasons why sugary drinks and sodas, in particular, get no respect from a doctor that’s concerned about your health.

            In the United States, the average consumption of soft drinks is about 150-160 liters per person.  Add in another 40-50 liters of mostly sugar laden “fruit juices” per person and you have a national health disaster in the making.  A near doubling in consumption of sugary drinks since 1970 has become a major factor in weight gain along with a depressing list of cascading health issues.  On the positive side, in recent years the consumption of water as the drink of choice has risen with some falloff in soft drink sales. Unfortunately many have turned to sports drinks and juices drinks which in name sound healthy but are more often sugary drinks in disguise that fall far from being supportive of health.

            While soft drinks hold the distinction of being the most detrimental junk food, the high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten them has now migrated to thousands of other products.  As this transformation in foods progressed, the higher levels of sweetness have reset taste preferences and now foods without added sugars are avoided. Even fruit juices that are naturally sweet often have added high fructose corn syrup to assure they meet expectations for sweetness.

            For many years, the belief that soft drink consumption leads to negative health outcomes was controversial.  Today, we have an extensive literature with studies involving different methods, populations, and outcomes.  Most importantly, while correlation does not prove causation, we now have a critical mass of studies with strong methods and sufficient sample sizes that can support our understanding.   These findings have helped us understand that soft drinks increase hunger, decrease satiety, and recalibrate  expectations to a higher level of sweetness that generalizes to preferences in many other foods.   This trend has moved the national diet preferences to never before seen heights on the glycemic index.  One of the most striking findings is that those who consumed 1 or more servings of soft drinks per day ( far less than the US national average) were at twice the risk of developing diabetes as those who consumed less than 1 serving per month.

            Despite their many negative health effects, soft drinks remain popular. For some, they are consumed with every meal and as between meal snacks.  Unfortunately, there are many compelling reasons that encourage people to reach for a soft drink.  Here are a few of these reasons.

  • The taste is compelling even when you aren’t thirsty.
  • It’s available almost everywhere.  Often it’s the only drink available.
  • It’s convenient.  Often it’s sold in individual size disposable containers.
  • It has extensive advertising that portrays it as part of a glamorous life.
  • It’s cheap and often almost free when bought in combination with other foods. 
  • It can become a habit with some feeling the need to sip every waking hour.
  • It’s addictive.  Caffeine combined with sugar creates a double addiction.

            Regardless of the reason, consumption of soft drinks is inconsistent with nutritional needs for a quality of life. For most, giving up soft drinks can provide more benefits for their health than any other dietary change aside from discontinuing foods they have allergies too.

            For anyone planning to continue drinking soft drinks here is a short list of reasons why it’s not a good idea.

  • There is no nutritional value in soft drinks other than calories.  When a food that’s low in fiber and micronutrients per calorie dominates a diet, expect disease conditions to begin developing.
  • They contribute to weight gain.  One can a day of the sugary drinks translates into over 1 lb of weight gain every month.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages are strongly associated with accumulation of fat around the abdomen.
  • Rapid absorption of high fructose corn syrup puts a strain on insulin-producing cells. Diabetes is often the consequence.
  • High soda consumption in children represents a significant risk factor for impaired calcification of growing bones. Weakened bones and risk of osteoporosis can be the consequences.
  • Soda eats up and dissolves tooth enamel. Acids in soda are even worse on teeth than solid sugar from candies.
  • Cola beverages can increase the risk of kidney problems.  Drinking two or more sodas a day, even if artificially sweetened, is linked to doubling the risk of a chronic kidney disease.
  • Heavy consumption of soft drinks, can lead to an increase in blood pressure.
  • Soft drink consumption is a strong predictor of heartburn.
  • Soft drinks are a significant risk factor for developing metabolic syndrome.
  • Increases the risk of fatty liver, a disease often found in chronic alcoholics.
  • Impaired digestive system
  • Increased risk of asthma and lung disease
  • Increased acidity causes food to remain undigested causing indigestion, increased gas, and bloating.
  • Drinking a caffeinated soda to quench your thirst only makes you thirstier because both caffeine and sugar act as a dehydrating diuretic.

While caffeine in small amounts can have some beneficial effects, in high doses, caffeine can cause irritability, restlessness, tension, insomnia, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal disturbance, excessive urination, irregular heartbeat and worse.

Ready to kick the can?  Water is a great alternative to sugar drinks and the drink of choice in my office.  Join me for a walk Saturday and if you have missed this remarkable product, I’ll show you what it looks like.  Actually, water is available at every walk, just  in case you need it.

Nancy Neighbors, MD


Need Help Making Water Tasty?

Perhaps you don’t find water to be appealing.  If that’s keeping you from making water your drink of choice then try adding a few slices of fresh fruit or a squeeze of lemon or lime. For a hot drink, herbal teas offer near endless taste possibilities.  For especially refreshing summer treat add ice cubes with mint and cucumber. Need more ideas?  The possibilities for making water delicious are near endless. For starters look over Monica Shaw’s “32 Natural Ways to Flavor Water” and Janice Taylor’s “20 Creative & Tasty Ways to Make Boring Water Taste Like Heaven.”


Why Artificially Sweetened Drinks Are Not the Answer?

While the FDA does approve of additives like Aspartame and sodium benzoate there is concern about their possible long-term effects. To quote one source, “If you think diet soda is better — think again. The poison in diet soda is an artificial sweetener aspartame. Aspartame is made up of three chemicals: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. It is used because it’s about 200 times sweeter than table sugar.”

Despite US FDA approval as a “safe” food additive, aspartame is one of the most dangerous substances added to foods. After you drink an aspartame-sweetened product, aspartame breaks down into its starting components: phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol (that further converts to formaldehyde and formic acid, which are known carcinogens.). There are over 92 known health side effects associated with aspartame consumption.

Because sodas are addictive, just cutting back is not a viable way to stop the habit. An addictive substance will only complicate quitting by nagging you for more.  If finding a way through the rough patch of transitioning to more natural foods continues to get the best of you, then we need to talk.

For most of us, water is the best drink.  As an alternative, drink real juices in moderation, milk if you have the natural enzymes for digestion, or unsweetened coffee and tea (any type). Of course, if like me and on your way to a healthier plant based diet then drink almond milk, soy milk or coconut milk as the healthier alternative to cow’s milk.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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