You’d think that some things are beyond dispute, that some issues are so obvious that proof and studies are hardly necessary.
When two thirds of the population is overweight or obese and much of this population is consuming 250-300 calories a day in sugary drinks -- calories that are nutritionally naked -- it’s clear that these sugary drinks should be the first thing to go in order to reduce obesity. It’s elementary.
Cutting sugary drinks is one of the first pieces of nutrition and weight-loss advice one gets from lay people as well as experts because it just makes sense.
It’s obvious, but it’s also scientifically proven: studies have been amassing in support of what we already intuitively know.
Proving the obvious
Large population studies have clearly linked sugary drink with obesity. Even more worrisome are the studies linking sugary beverages to type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. And then there are the studies that show that liquid calories trick our body and mind to overeat because the calories in beverages don’t cause satiety, suggesting that calories in sweet drinks behave differently from those we eat.
For remaining doubters, and I suspect there are very few of those who’re free of conflict of interest, a fresh batch of studies adding further strong evidence was published last weekend in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
A study led by the Harvard School of Public Health, involving more than 33,000 people, showed that drinking sugary beverages interacts with genes that affect weight, amplifying a person's risk for obesity beyond what heredity alone would predict. In other words, people with the genetic propensity to become fat doubled their chance of becoming obese if they drank sweetened beverages.
The two other studies were all about kids and their sweets.
In one study researchers assigned 224 overweight and obese teens from Boston to receive home deliveries of either sugary drinks or sugar-free ones. The kids on the sugary drink delivery regimen gained about 2 kg (4.5 pounds) more than the sugar-free group. This difference disappeared in the second year of the study, once home deliveries stopped.
The other study involved normal-weight kids. It was a double-blind study (the best type of evidence) and was completed by 477 kids who drank sugared or sugar-free drinks for 18 months. The kids drinking sugar gained about 1 kg (2.2 pounds) extra weight compared to the sugar-free group, and accumulated most of it as fat.
Why target sugary drinks?
Another obvious weight-loss piece of advice one gets is to stay away from fried food. Frying adds lots of fat, and fat has a lot of calories you don’t need if you’re gaining too much weight.
Yet we don’t see many public health campaigns or proposed laws targeting deep-frying.
The reason sugary drinks are targeted is because they’re the largest contributor of added sugar to our diet. They comprise 10-15 percent of Americans’ daily caloric intake. A billion dollars are invested in promoting them each year, especially to young people during their habit-formation years. They are everywhere, within easy reach, alluring, super-sized and cheap.
They’re targeted because they’re a central driver of the obesity epidemic, and the lowest hanging fruit when it comes shaving extra calories in a population facing a true health crisis due to too many calories.
Coca-Cola’s chief scientific and regulatory officer Rhona Applebaum told Bloomberg News in reaction to these articles that soda has been unfairly targeted as the cause of the obesity epidemic in the U.S., that there are many factors that are linked to weight gain and that drinks containing sugar can be a part of a healthy and balanced diet.
I agree that playing the blame game isn’t helpful, and that we eat too much of not just soda, but targeting sugary drinks hasn’t been about assigning blame, but rather about finding solutions. We need to cut, and cutting loads of empty calories that provide no satiety, spike our blood sugar constantly, and are so prevalent and highly marketed was obvious even before the proof started piling high.
Drinks containing sugar can be a part of a healthy and balanced diet? Really? Which part is that? But hey, wasn’t that statement awfully nice on the ear? Never underestimate the power of telling people what they want to hear.
Full disclosure: I’m vice president of product development for Herbal Water, where we make organic herb-infused waters that have zero calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. I’m also a pediatrician and have been promoting good nutrition and healthy lifestyle for many years.