“Sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one culprit in the obesity crisis,” says expert nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett, winner of the 2013 Bloomberg Manulife Prize. “If we were only able to remove one food item from grocery-store shelves, it would be soda. Soda is the single-most important factor in the obesity crisis, partly because it’s so easy to over-consume calories that way. A standard 20 ounce serving has about 17 teaspoons of sugar.”
While the thought of swallowing 17 teaspoons of sugar seems almost absurd, this is the reality with every can of sugar-sweetened soda we consume. Public health influencers and researchers are taking the lead in addressing our appetite for sugar-sweetened beverages. Recently, a study on youth proves beyond a doubt that soda consumption increases the odds of obesity more than any other food item. In February 2014, a new set of studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and focusing exclusively on teens, made a strong link between sugary drinks and weight gain. These studies prove that removing sugary beverages reduces the chance that children will become obese.
For adults, too, the message is consistent with that of teens. Perhaps most troubling is the data showing that regular consumption of the sugar-sweetened drinks may actually trigger genetic switches that predispose our bodies to gain weight.
The data is meaningful, but the message absolutely needs to get out to the public, says Willett. “We need to be aware. Educational intervention and campaigns really do work. We [at the Harvard School of Public Health] been closely watching a study in Boston, and have seen a 17 per cent reduction in soda consumption when soda was taken out of schools. That was an important step, and hopefully that message will start to circulate.”
Sodas are not the only culprit. Sports drinks, blended coffees and other sugar-sweetened beverages have long been assumed to play a leading role in the obesity crisis. There are hidden sugars in all kinds of beverages we consume without fully realizing the health consequences.
We need to be wise shoppers, too, Willet explains: “The market plays a major role, and if you walk into any neighbourhood store, especially in lower-income areas, soda is prominently displayed – it’s almost unavoidable. The ingredients are so cheap, at just a few cents a bottle, that the manufacturers can make a hefty profit selling sugar-sweetened beverages, even at quite a low price. It’s really not surprising it’s there.”
“In fact, the soda industry is extremely powerful in the U.S.; they have strongly lobbied to have their products purchased through food stamps, and – so far – they’ve won.” So it should not be surprising that these recent studies raised immediate objections from the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.; a press release from the American Beverage Association, which represents the soda companies, stated, “Sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving obesity. By every measure, sugar-sweetened beverages play a small and declining role in the American diet.” Apparently, Willett was not consulted on the matter.
In the public health battle against the preponderance of sugary drinks, there is some cause for reassurance: “We are seeing soda consumption in the U.S. go down, because usually these trends change first among higher income groups,” says Willet. Yet he also cautions, “The message needs to reach low-income groups that bear the burden of obesity; these are the groups with more diabetes, heart disease, and other obesity-related health issues.”
Willett offers some “sparkling” advice on how to stay hydrated in the warmer months without falling prey to unhealthy thirst-quenchers: “We’ve heard it said before, but it’s true. Water is the best solution, and the best choice for your health. You can jazz it up a little bit, too, you can add lemon or lime juice, or mix a quarter cup of orange juice with sparkling water – I love sparkling water. You can make a wide variety of beverages on your own if you want to make healthier choices.”
By Jennifer Nault