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Are Soft Drinks Patients' Worst Enemy? (June 26, 2012)

A study at the University of California, Davis, is monitoring volunteers' sugar intake to determine the real role of soft drinks in obesity. Each volunteer starts out receiving meals that contain no extra sugars and agrees to eat only what he or she receives through the program. Participants spend a lot of time being measured and tested. Over the course of several weeks, the meals begin to contain more added sugars, including high fructose corn syrup, the most pervasive sweetener in everyday American life. By the last two weeks of the study, volunteers consume three extra sweet drinks, accounting for about 500 calories, or a quarter of the recommended intake for adult women. The results are surprising. Within this period, the volunteers suffered severe changes in blood chemistry just from consuming extra sugar. Many showed higher levels in cholesterol testing specifically of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which is strongly associated with increased risk of heart disease along with inflammation, measured by a highly sensitive C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP) test. This controlled diet correlates with the daily sugar intake of many people in the real world; a regular 20-ounce soda sweetened with HFCS accounts for about 225 calories and makes up about 10 percent of the recommended intake for adult females. A quarter of U.S. residents consume at least 200 calories in sugary beverages per day. According to many experts, soft drinks and soda should be considered the biggest public health enemy there is, contributing to the dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes in the US.

Widespread Consumption

The problem doesn't just extend to adults; many children consume large amounts of extra sugar every day, mostly in the form of soft drinks. An average of 300 calories or more per day from sweetened beverages isn't uncommon. Giving up the drinks is often easier than engaging in longer periods of strenuous physical activity, experts say, and it could produce similar health benefits. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, of course. Members of the American Beverage Association feel that soft drink producers have been singled out unfairly. They point to the fact that soda consumption has actually gone down and that most people are eating and drinking less added sugar than before, even as obesity rates rise. These figures suggest that even if sugar is a major player, it's not the only factor in weight gain.

Change in Obesity Rates

Many beverage manufacturers have changed their products to meet consumer demand for reduced sugars. For instance, Coca-Cola's diet and low-calorie products represent about 40 percent of the market in North America, an increase of about 10 percent over the course of as many years. Other soda producers show similar figures, with overall consumption of soda falling by about 20 percent since the late 1990s. Those figures parallel a change in obesity rates. Women and girls have shown no increase in obesity percentages since the end of the 1990s. Men and boys continue to see an increase in the obesity rate, but that increase has been slowing since about 2006.

Not Just Soda

While many people focus on soda alone as a cause of obesity, it's not the only “soft drink” to contribute massive amounts of sugar to the American diet. Apparently healthy fruit juices and punches can provide over 100 calories per glass. Chocolate or strawberry milk nearly doubles that count, providing about 200 calories in an 8 ounce serving. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans consume about a sixth of their calories in the form of added sugars. About a third of those calories come from beverages such as soda.

Solutions

The large impact of sweetened drinks is why many experts suggest switching to water as a major step in fighting diabetes, weight gain or similar problems. While no one step will help people avoid obesity and reduce their risk of metabolic diseases, cutting out extra sugars is one of the easiest and most effective options. This is especially true in the case of HFCS, which is used in almost all sodas in the U.S. and can subtly alter the metabolism, increasing the risk of heart problems, diabetes and other conditions. Reducing the intake of sweetened beverages is part of an effective program for improving health and cutting the risk of serious diseases, especially for people who are already at risk for diabetes. Consumers can also choose to have regular cardiovascular health and blood sugar tests performed. These help patients and their doctors monitor risk factors on an individual basis and make smart decisions about prevention and treatment.
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