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Soda: Public health enemy No. 1?

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It’s a well-known adage: Drinking too much soda is bad for you.  But just how bad is excessive soda consumption for your body?

The unanimous answer from experts: “Very.” And regular soda isn’t the only culprit. Even diet drinks, which utilize artificial sweeteners in place of sugar, could still negatively impact an individual’s health.

High rates of soda consumption have been linked with numerous health problems, including weight gain, poor dental health, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – which can ultimately lead to heart attacks, stroke and premature death.

To help better understand the risks of drinking too much soda, doctors from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City and UH Case Medical Centers in Cleveland, Ohio detailed exactly how the body responds to sugary, sweetened beverages, as well as how you can cut soda from your diet without eliminating it completely.

Calories and weight

The average American consumes 45 gallons of sugary, sweetened beverages per year, according to a 2011 study by Yale University.  Meanwhile, the obesity epidemic is in full swing in the United States, with more than 69 percent of adults considered overweight or obese – a problem which many health experts are quick to blame on Americans’ soda habit.

“The main thing is excess calories,” Dr. Christopher Ochner, assistant professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told FoxNews.com.  “If everything else in their diet is equal, a person who has a can of Coke a day adds an extra 14.5 pounds per year, just from the calories alone.”

“You’d probably be better off eating those calories at McDonald’s, because you’d at least get some nutrition.”

- Dr. Christopher Ochner, professor at Mount Sinai, regarding drinking a 12-ounce can of soda

Many nutritionists espouse the idea that “a calorie is a calorie,” meaning it doesn’t matter where your calories are coming from as long as you consume around 2,000 a day.  And with a 12-ounce can of Coke containing only 140 calories, some consumers believe drinking a can or two of soda per day isn’t making much of a difference in their diet.

But according to Ochner, new studies have emerged in the past decade that suggest all calories may not be created equal.

“We’re finding some research that seems to indicate that calories from sugar are more easily turned into fat in your body than calories from fat in food are turned into fat in your body,” Ochner said.  Translation: Eating and drinking sugar makes you gain more weight than eating fat.

Another problem with sugary beverages is the method of consumption – drinking. Ochner noted that when individuals drink a lot of calories, their bodies don’t register fullness as quickly as when they eat the calories.  Therefore, they tend to drink more and more soda without getting a signal from their bodies to stop.

Furthermore, as people consume lots of sugar in one sitting, they experience what is commonly referred to as a “sugar rush.”  To match this spike in sugar, the body produces a spike in insulin, which is followed by a glucose crash.  How do people compensate for this crash? Typically by consuming more sugar, Ochner said.

“These people wind up spiking and crashing, and the system that keeps trying to regulate this – it’s up and down,” Ochner said, referring to what is known as the glycemic index. “You get dysregulation, and you wind up getting insulin resistance.  The body’s not able to properly metabolize the sugar, which ultimately leads to diabetes.”

Due to the overwhelmingly adverse health effects associated with drinking soda, Ochner recommends that people should drop soda completely from their diets. But if you still need that 140-calorie fix, he said almost anything else is better than soda.

“There’s zero nutritional value.  None,” Ochner said.  “You’d probably be better off eating those calories at McDonald’s, because you’d at least get some nutrition.”

Heart health

While the extra pounds gained through soda consumption often contribute to adverse heart conditions such as cardiovascular disease and stroke, some experts believe that drinking sugary drinks can increase a person’s risk for an unhealthy heart independent of weight gain.

CDC Facts on Sugary Drinks Consumption

- About half of the population consumes sugar drinks on any given day.

- Teenagers and young adults consume more sugar drinks than other age groups.

- Males consume more sugar drinks than females.

To learn more about the consumption of sugary drinks, visit CDC.gov.

 

The three main ingredients in a 12-ounce can of soda include 41 grams of sugar, 30 milligrams of sodium and 38 milligrams of caffeine.  According to Dr. Mary Ann McLaughlin, medical director of the cardiac health program and co-director of the women's cardiac assessment and risk evaluation program at Mount Sinai, it’s the latter two ingredients that do the most damage to the heart.

“Caffeine can increase heart rate and blood pressure, and too much sodium over the course of the day can increase food retention.  This combination of caffeine and sodium has a dehydrating effect,” McLaughlin told FoxNews.com. “People drink because they’re thirsty, but they end up urinating before long because of the caffeine. What you want is for the heart to be replenished with water, so they think they are hydrating themselves, but they’re really not if most of what they drink is soda.”

Studies have also shown that people who consume soda tend to develop metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by a cluster of symptoms, including abdominal girth, elevated blood pressure, raised glucose, elevated triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol (commonly referred to as “good cholesterol”).

“What we consider to be the implication is this accelerates the risk factors for atherosclerosis,” Dr. Sahil Parikh, a cardiologist for UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, told FoxNews.com.  “Atherosclerosis is the hardening of the arteries, so when we talk about adult heart disease, we talk about atherosclerosis.”

Is diet soda any better?

Many soda lovers who understand the ill effects of soda think that turning to diet soft drinks may be a better option, since these beverages tout “zero” calories.  But health experts are still on the fence about diet soda, as more and more evidence surfaces linking these drinks to equally damaging health conditions.

“Interestingly, diet soda is not without its own problems, because it turns out if you look at people who drink diet soda, they tend to be heavier,” McLaughlin said.

Ochner said he has an open, but skeptical view about diet soda, since the studies out there have yet to establish a causal connection between diet soft drinks and obesity.

“Most of them are asking people how much diet soda they drink,” Ochner said.  “But it also may be that more obese people are trying to lose weight, so they are more likely to try diet soda.”

However, a recent study from Purdue University argued that behavioral explanations aren’t fully to blame for the link between soft drinks and obesity.  The researchers maintained that artificial sweeteners in soft drinks trick the body into reacting differently when it tastes something sweet, ultimately throwing off metabolism.

So what are soda lovers to do?  Of course, health experts recommend replacing soft drinks with plain old water. But people don’t necessarily need to cut soda from their diet completely.  The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 450 calories per week from sugar sweetened beverages, based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories.

“Everything in moderation,” Ochner said. “It’s 140 calories. It’s like eating a packet of gummy bears.  If you eat that once a week, it won’t affect you.  Very few things in moderation are really going to hurt you.”

So next time you’re offered a chance to super-size your soda at the movie theater, health experts advise to think twice.

“Too much of a bad thing is a bad thing,” Parikh told FoxNews.com.

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