For most of her life, Abbey Arndt, 33, has been a soda addict.
In the middle of the morning, she'd indulge her first craving of the day with a trip to the office refrigerator to grab one of the free sodas her company supplied. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, cherry soda--it didn't matter, she was an equal-opportunity drinker. In the afternoon, she'd snatch another can, and dinner often meant a third. "If I wasn't drinking soda, I was thinking about it," says Arndt, a corporate consultant who lives in Grafton, WI.
Her weight problems began at age ten, not long after she started drinking large amounts of pop, and continued into her 20s and 30s. At her peak, she weighed 314 pounds. In addition to feeling heavy and out of shape, she dealt with rampant cavities, frequent mood swings, and erratic energy levels. "I'd get lethargic midmorning, so I'd grab a soda, thinking it would give me a pick-me-up. I'd be a little hyper, but then half an hour later, I would practically be asleep at my keyboard."
Arndt's passion for pop is all too familiar to the average American--who drinks 18 ounces, or two full glasses, of soft drinks a day. In fact, according to a study last year, soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks have become the largest source of calories in the American diet, replacing white bread. The proliferation of soda tells the story: 450 different varieties are sold in the United States. While soft drinks are still king, with sales reaching $68.1 billion in 2005, sports drinks sales have increased 19.3% over the past year to $1.5 billion.
People may think they're doing something healthy "by grabbing a bottle of Powerade instead of a can of Coke," says Kara Gallagher, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Louisville and a Prevention advisor. But at ten calories per ounce, that Powerade is almost as bad as a can of Coke, which has 12 per ounce. "Unless you're exercising vigorously, you don't need sports drinks. They have a lot of empty calories, just like anything else," she says.
Most people would agree that their love affair with the sweet stuff--whatever flavor it might be--isn't all that healthy, but no one would put it in the same class as a truly bad habit such as smoking or drinking alcohol to excess, right?
Wrong. Scientists are beginning to do just that. The bulk of the research has focused on connecting the dots between consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain, but there is mounting evidence that our national obsession with liquid candy affects more than just our figures. From the very first sip, experts say, cola starts to wreak havoc on the body. It corrodes the teeth, confuses the appetite-regulating hormones in the digestive tract, attacks the bones, and encourages the organ breakdown that leads to diabetes.
Arndt, for one, is convinced that soda was the primary cause of her problems: "I tried to eat somewhat healthy, but my doctors weren't happy about how much I drank, and they attributed my weight, in part, to that. And going to the dentist was never fun. The dentist would always say, 'Lay off the soda.'" In December 2005, she made the decision to get healthy. With the help of Jenny Craig and Curves, she licked her soda habit and lost 90 pounds in seven months.
"I feel incredible," she says.
It's time for us all to follow Arndt's lead. The latest research can't be any clearer: When it comes to your health, soda is playing a startling number of dangerous roles, starting with...
Waist Widener Sweetened drinks can pack on the pounds. If, on average, we're drinking 18 ounces of liquid candy daily, we're adding about 225 calories to our diet. Over the course of a month, that's almost 7,000 additional calories, which can easily translate to a two-pound gain. Over a year, these drinks could be adding 24 pounds to our bottom line.
That seems to be just what's happening: Over the past 4 decades, our increasing consumption of soda has been matched by our ever-expanding waistlines. "In my estimation, sugary beverages are one of the two leading environmental causes of obesity, perhaps second only to TV viewing in the magnitude of its effect," says David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital Boston.
He and colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health presented the first strong evidence linking soft drink consumption to childhood obesity back in 2001. They tracked the diets of 548 teens for 19 months and found that kids who drank sugar-sweetened beverages regularly were more likely to be overweight than those who didn't. The researchers also found that the odds of becoming obese increased 60% for each can or glass a day of sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
Ludwig followed up with an intervention study, published earlier this year, examining 103 students from a Cambridge, MA, high school for 6 months. Half were instructed to drink whatever they liked. The other half were asked to stop drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and were given weekly deliveries of their choice of calorie-free options, including bottled waters, seltzers, and diet sodas. The intervention group lost weight--about 1 pound for each month of the study, while the soda drinkers' weight remained about the same.
Everybody knows that these drinks are high in calories (a 12-ounce can contains about 150 calories; the increasingly popular 20-ounce size packs 250). What people don't realize is that these calories may be particularly effective at making people fat. Perhaps because they pass through the stomach more quickly than food, "liquid calories slip past the body's weight-regulating radar system," says Ludwig. As a result, people who down sugary drinks don't feel as full as those who consume the same amount of calories in solid food.
This theory was borne out by researchers at Purdue University who, in 2000, gave 15 volunteers 450 calories a day of either soda or jelly beans for a month and then switched them for the next month, while monitoring their total calories. The candy eaters compensated for the extra calories by eating less food and maintained their weight; during the soda phase, the volunteers ate more and gained.
Liquid sugar is a problem--but the type of sugar used in the majority of soft drinks may be making things worse. Although the research is controversial, there's evidence that the man-made high fructose corn syrup used in most sodas fails to suppress the production of ghrelin, a hormone made by the stomach that stimulates appetite.
"Unlike carbohydrates containing 100% glucose, such as the starch found in rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta, fructose doesn't seem to trigger the hormones that help you regulate appetite and fat storage," says Peter Havel, PhD, a nutrition researcher at the University of California, Davis. "So the body never gets the message to stop eating." Drink a six-pack of cola--900 calories, or about half of the total calories the average woman would need for a day--and your body feels no fuller than if you'd just swallowed water.