How Soda and Sugar Make You Healthy And Strong

by Claudius J West

hannibal-lecter from silence of the lambs

“You do like soda, don’t you, Clarice? A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a cherry cola.”

Do you love a truly epic villain? Darth Vader? Hannibal Lecter? Me, too, but only when I’m watching a movie or reading a book. In real life, villains stink.

In response to a 2012 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the American Beverage Association tells us that “The fact remains: sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving obesity.”


The American Beverage Association goes on to say: “We know, and science supports, that obesity is not uniquely caused by any single food or beverage.”

Supported by science and commonsense, I’d say. Set up a straw man argument, such as “obesity is uniquely caused by soft drinks,” and it’s an easy argument to knock down.

But even if it were true that soft drinks aren’t uniquely driving obesity, they (along with other refined carbohydrates) are the diesel in the fuel tank of the obesity chug-chug train.

Qibin QiThe New England Journal of Medicine study that’s got the American Beverage Association seeing red is called Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Genetic Risk of Obesity (Qibin Qi, Ph.D, et ales).

“During the past 30 years, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages [SSBs] has increased dramatically. Compelling evidence supports a positive link between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and the risk of obesity. The temporal patterns in the increasing consumption of these beverages have paralleled the rise in the prevalence of obesity; in the United States, both the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and the prevalence of obesity have more than doubled since the late 1970s.” —Qibin Qi, Ph.D et ales

(I didn’t include the original footnotes in the quotation above, but if you go to the study,, you will find several references to studies supporting every sentence.)

The study tells us that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) affect us at a genetic level, even at consumption rates as low as one drink per month.

The more you have to drink, the greater your risks for obesity. It seems the sugar in soda and other SSBs can flip genetic switches whatever your caloric intake may be. The simple fact of it being there in your body may be the small push your genetic alleles need to send you sliding down the slippery slope to fat-town.

TeeterTotterIt’s not fair. Even if you count your calories, assiduously keeping the teeter-totter balanced between calories in versus calories out, just like the diet books and everybody else say to do, soda commands your genes “let’s get fat!”

Totally unfair.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie—maybe not.

Timothy Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Body refers to a study by Kekwick and Pawan that “compared three groups put on calorically equivalent (isocaloric) semistarvation diets of 90% fat, 90% protein, or 90% carbohydrates. Though ensuring compliance was a challenge, the outcomes were clearly not at all the same:

1,000 cals. at 90% fat = weight loss of 0.9 lbs. per day

1,000 cals. at 90% protein = weight loss of 0.6 lbs. per day

The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss1,000 cals. at 90% carbohydrate = weight gain of 0.24 lbs. per day

Different sources of calories = different results.” (p. 32-33)

How is it possible to eat only 1,000 calories a day of carbohydrates and gain weight? You’d have to go all the way back to your second year of life and your toddlerhood to get by adequately on just 1,000 calories.*

What is the evil magic carbohydrates possess that makes it possible for a puny 1,000 calories worth to cause you to gain weight? (Hint: it has to do with insulin.)

The American Beverage Association says not to bother with any of that. “While Americans consume about 617 more calories today than they did in 1970, more than 90 percent of those incremental calories come from sources other than beverages.”

Hurray! Take away 90 percent from 617 and that’s a mere 61 surplus calories that can be blamed on sugar-sweetened beverages.

That’s little more than one-fifth the contents of a 20 ounce bottle of Coke.

Hold the phone—in Shifts in Patterns and Consumption of Beverages Between 1965 and 2002, Kiyah J. Duffey and Barry M. Popkin report that in 2002 a quarter of the population was getting 30% of their calories from beverages.**

They say we take in 458 calories from SSBs.

(Keep in mind that that statistic applies to just a quarter of the population. The remainder of the population may be drinking more or may be drinking less.)

pound-of-fatLet’s pretend that those 458 calories are all surplus; they are above and beyond our maintenance calories we take in from solid food. What do those extra beverage calories look like if they are turned to fat in your body?

To gain a pound of fat, you need to consume 3,500 calories more than what is required to maintain your current weight. (To lose a pound of fat, you need to burn about 4,400 calories. Why does it take more calories to lose a pound than to gain a pound? Because there are capillaries and other support structures that go along with that pound of fat that need to be dismantled.)

Those extra daily 458 calories will turn into a pound of fat every 7.6 days. (Theoretically speaking. Because they are calories derived from carbohydrates, they may be doing their carbo-magic and packing on even more weight even faster.)

That amounts to 48 pounds per year.

But does that make sense? There are plenty of people carrying around an extra 48 pounds, even 100-plus pounds, but if what I’m saying held true, in ten years all of the SSB drinkers would weigh over 500 pounds.

weigh scale with the words helps Let’s think of it a different way. Every year, average SSB drinkers can look forward to a  minimum of 48 pounds added to their scale. They either compensate by increasing their physical activity, or they cut back their calorie consumption in other areas. To the degree that they fail to do so, they gain weight.

Luckily, the American Beverage Association informs us that: “Sugar-sweetened beverages contribute about 7 percent of the calories in the average American’s diet.”

If that’s true, and if the figures I got from the Duffey and Popkin are also true, then the average American consumes 6,542 calories a day. But, they don’t. Something doesn’t add up.

The American Beverage Association says it is getting its numbers from the U.S Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. I looked up those guidelines. Sure enough, for someone in my age group, it’s estimated we get 6.4% of our calories from SSBs.

That’s an average that includes people who drink no SSBs at all and thus it under-represents the percentage of calories for those who do drink SSBs.

Let’s do our own math.

nutrition label showing 275 caloriesTo maintain weight, I’m expected to consume 2,400 calories a day. If during those calories I drink two 20-ounce bottles of Coke (550 calories), that’s 23% of my calories from SSBs.

If three bottles, then 34%.

I know from plenty of experience that it’s all too easy to drink two or more 20-ounce bottles a day. The hard part is not drinking two or three bottles a day.

What is even harder to do is to drink just half a bottle a day, which is what you’d have to do (if you are a male in my age group), in order to make the 6% of calories true—and even less if you are a woman.

How many people drink just half a bottle?

This seems an appropriate time to trot out that well-loved chestnut about lies, damn lies, and statistics.

The American Beverage Associate says: “The average number of calories per beverage serving is down 23 percent since 1998 and about 45 percent of all non-alcoholic beverages purchased today have zero calories.”

The first thing my suspicious mind makes of this claim is that, sure, lots more people today are drinking non-alcoholic beverages than they were in 1998: it’s called bottled water.

The American Beverage Associate says: “Forty-eight percent of overweight and obese individuals drink no sugar-sweetened beverages.”

If that means that, instead of SSBs, they’re drinking saccharin-loaded “diet” sodas, that isn’t any better as far as weight-gain or health is concerned.

Sweet'N Low aka saccharin“A Purdue University study released [in 2008] in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience reported that rats on diets containing the artificial sweetener saccharin gained more weight than rats given sugary food, casting doubt on the benefits of low-calorie sweeteners.” —ABC News.

And what about the 52% of obese individuals who are drinking sugar-sweetened sodas? What about them?

The American Beverage Associate says: “What matters is calories – regardless of the source. But when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, we must look at the whole picture – including sedentary lifestyles, not just the 7 percent of calories in the average American’s diet that come from sugar-sweetened beverages.”

This isn’t about the non-existent “average American.” This is about the 35.7% of obese american adults and the 17% of obese american children. (That’s self-reported number, by the way, so it’s a good bet the actual percentages are much higher.)

Why might the American Beverage Association want us to believe that calories are equal “regardless of the source”? Because not all calories are equal. As we’ve seen suggested by the NEJM study, soda carbs can trigger genetic responses that protein and fat calories don’t.

We will see (in future posts I have yet to write) that carbohydrate calories, particularly refined carbohydrates, affect insulin production much differently than other calories, and that leads to bad things.

As much as the American Beverage Association would like us to believe that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and that there is no difference between the calories they want to sell us versus any other calorie out there, it isn’t true.

crumpled coke can“SSBs may also increase T2DM and cardiovascular risk independently of obesity as a potential contributor to a high dietary GL [glycemic load, that is, blood-sugar level] and increased fructose metabolism, leading to inflammation, insulin resistance, impaired β-cell function [the cells in your pancreas that make your insulin], and high blood pressure, as well as accumulation of visceral adiposity/ectopic fat and atherogenic dyslipidemia [an abnormal amount of lipids (e.g. cholesterol and/or fat) in the blood].”***

As much as entities like the American Beverage Association try to persuade you that there’s no cause for you to worry about consuming the products they endorse, I believe the reason they tell us that is because they are more interested in protecting their profits than they are in your health.

“Our Industry’s Efforts to be Part of Meaningful Solutions”

“America’s beverage companies are delivering more choices, smaller portions, fewer calories and clearer labels across the country. By doing so, our companies are making a meaningful difference for families and individuals in our communities – making it easier to choose the drink that’s right for them.”

wolf-sheep-clothing“We’re supporting First Lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move!’ campaign with our Clear on Calories initiative to display clear calorie information on the front of every bottle, can and pack we produce.”

I’m not impressed. I looks to me like a wolf dressing up in sheep’s clothing.

The only drink right for us and our families is not to drink SSBs.

* according to USDA estimates based on Estimated Energy Requirements (EER) equations, using reference heights (average) and reference weights (healthy) for each age-gender group.

 **From 1965 and 2002, there was a significant, monotonic increase in the per capita total caloric intake from beverages (Table 1), increasing from 236 calories per day in 1965 to 458 calories per day in 2002 (p < 0.01). Despite increases in total calories over this same time period (1993 vs. 2185 total calories per day in 1965 and 2002, respectively, p < 0.01), the contribution of beverages to overall caloric intake increased as well. In 1965, beverages accounted for roughly 12% of total calories. This increased to 14% in 1977 and 19% in 1989, and by 2002, beverages accounted for 21% of daily caloric intake (p < 0.01 comparing each year to each other year). The proportion of calories from beverages has also shifted over time. In 1965, just 17% of the population consumed 25% of their daily calories from beverages. By 1989, a full 37% of the population was consuming a quarter of their calories from beverages, with a slight drop in 2002 to 30% .

***Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk —Vasanti S. Malik, MSc; Barry M. Popkin, PhD; George A. Bray, MD; Jean-Pierre Després, PhD; Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD


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