For Your Health: Don’t sugarcoat the health risks of sugary drinks

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

By Graham A. Colditz

Siteman Cancer Center

We have a love affair with sugary drinks in the U.S. And it may, quite literally, be killing us. About 25,000 deaths each year are linked to drinking beverages like full-sugar sodas, sports drinks and energy drinks.

It’s a startling number, especially for something so common that we often don’t give it a second thought. Half of adults have at least one sugary drink each day, and about 20 percent have two or more. 

As if losing years of life weren’t concerning enough, “regularly drinking sugar-sweetened beverages has also been linked to weight gain and a higher risk of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and even liver disease,” said Dr. Rachel Tabak, a registered dietitian and research associate professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

 

What is it about these drinks that can lead to so many problems? There are a number of possibilities, but one likely culprit is pretty simple: extra calories. 

“Our bodies don’t necessarily recognize the calories we take in from beverages the same way they do from food,” Tabak said, so we might not adjust for the calories we get from, say, a soda by eating less. Over time, these extra calories can lead to weight gain and obesity, and the many diseases related to them.

On average, U.S. adults consume about 150 calories per day from sugary drinks, and many consume much more. A large fountain drink can have as many as 600 calories, which is a quarter to a third of the amount many adults should have in an entire day.

If you drink sugary drinks, the healthiest thing to do is to cut back, “ideally to zero,” Tabak said. 

These simple tips can help:

  • Keep sugary drinks out of the house. If you don’t buy them, you’re much less likely to drink them.
  • Keep a pitcher of cold water or unsweetened tea in the fridge. This way, you’ll always have a healthy option on hand.
  • Choose unsweetened coffee instead of an energy drink. If you want a boost, go with classic black coffee. You can even get it in cans.
  • Choose whole fruit rather than fruit juice. Whole fruit has more nutrients and is higher in fiber. If you really want 100-percent juice, try a low-sodium, 100-percent vegetable juice, which “has a number of health benefits and tends to contain more fiber and less sugar than fruit juice,” Tabak said.
  • Don’t go overboard on diet drinks. While they’re low-calorie and low-sugar, “there’s a lot we still don’t know about how they might affect the body,” she said. 
  • Buy a reusable water bottle. Keep it filled and with you, so you’ll be less tempted to choose a sugary drink when thirsty.
  • Be an advocate. Even small changes, like working to get healthier drink options in meetings or at school activities, can have an important impact in your community.

For fans of sugary drinks, cutting back can be hard, at first. So, it’s good to start small, and let little successes build on each other. It can be a process that takes some time, but it’s really worth the effort.

It’s your health. Take control.

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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