Does the guy who restocks the soda vending machine at the office know you by name?
Do you drink diet soda with your morning bagel?
Could your child say "soda" before he said "milk" or "juice"?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could be drinking too much soda. Soda's not as popular as it used to be. Beverage Digest reported in March 2006 that U.S. sales of drinks like Coke and Pepsi were down the previous year by 0.7%, the first such drop in 20 years. But we still bought more than 10 billion cases of soft drinks last year.
Soda: Nothing but Liquid Calories
Where's the problem? Every can or bottle of sugared soda adds hundreds of calories to your diet -- but absolutely no nutritional value. In fact, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, soda is the single greatest source of calories in the American diet, representing about 7% of our calories.
Soda is also a big source of health problems, say many researchers. Multiple studies link excessive soda consumption with obesity. For example, a study of Massachusetts schoolchildren found that for each additional sugary drink a child drank per day, his odds of becoming obese increased 60%.
"Studies funded by the beverage industry have suggested no link between soda and childhood obesity; studies funded by everyone else have begged to differ," says David Katz, MD, an associate professor of public health practice at the Yale School of Medicine.
Soda has been linked to many other health problems. Various studies have found that soda may raise the risk of diabetes. Everyone knows soda can damage tooth enamel. And some research indicates that soda could increase the risk of osteoporosis, either by pushing milk out of the diet, or because caffeine can interfere with calcium absorption.
The osteoporosis issue is particularly a problem for adolescent and teenage girls, who tend to drink a lot of soda.
"There's a relatively short time frame in our lives to achieve peak bone mass, and during that time, when girls should be consuming more milk and less soda, that's exactly the opposite of what happens," says Alison Field, DSc, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a researcher on obesity in children, adolescents, and women.
Is Switching to Diet Soda Safer?
Research on this question isn't clear. A study published in the journal Circulation in January 2008 found that people who drank just one diet soda a day faced a 34% higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a constellation of health problems including being overweight and having high blood-sugar levels that may lead to diabetes.
Also, studies done in animals indicate that diet soda can boost the craving for sweets. Human studies haven't backed this up yet, but Katz thinks it makes sense. "We have a sweet tooth not a 'sugar tooth,' per se. Sweets feed a sweet tooth, and the more sweets you get, the more you tend to want," says Katz.
But Barry Popkin, PhD, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that the diet soda studies in humans don't account for the other types of food the soda drinkers ate.
Popkin says there are two groups of diet soda drinkers.
- One type drinks diet soda and eats healthy foods.
- The other type drinks diet soda to justify ordering burgers and fries and other fattening foods.
"The ones in the latter group are the ones at higher risk for metabolic syndrome," says Popkin.
Making the Move off Soda
If you're convinced that all that sweet soda isn't doing you any good, how do you beat the craving for soft drinks?
First, says Field, know what not to switch to. Sales of sports beverages and "energy drinks" are rising, but those drinks are just as calorie-loaded as Coke and Pepsi. The new beverages may have more added nutrients than soda, but few people need that type of nutrition.
"I run marathons and I don't need a sports drink unless I've been running for more than an hour," says Field.
Instead, try these options:
- Start slow by replacing sugared sodas with diet ones. "They're not that great for you, but in terms of obesity, I'd rather see you drinking diet than sugared," says Field.
- Cut down gradually: replace one regular soft drink (or one diet soda) per day with an alternative drink. The best choice: water. "There may be health benefits to water even beyond those linked with cutting calories," says Popkin. "We were biologically evolved to drink water, and a series of new studies being published suggests that there are some extra metabolic effects of drinking water."
- If you really need something with a boost of flavor, try calorie-free flavored waters and seltzers.
- If it's the caffeine you crave, you're better off with tea or coffee, with minimal added sugars.
You don't have to cut soda out of your diet entirely. "If you really love something, don't put it completely off limits. You won't be able to stick to it," advises Field.
Katz agrees: "I haven't had a soda in 30 years, and I think people who get used to going without it altogether are least likely to miss it. But I don't think a soda or two a week will do most people much harm."