Are Sweetened Drinks the Devil in Disguise?
San Francisco warning labels on billboards would make it seem so
Much has been written about why we shouldn’t drink soda, even diet soda, if we want to be healthy and especially if we want to lose weight or keep it off. Sugary drinks have been associated in studies with weight gain, heart attacks and diabetes. One recent study suggested they could shorten your life by shortening your telomeres, the protein caps on the end of chromosomes (structures that contain our DNA).
Another study suggests sugary beverages could be a reason girls are getting their first periods at increasingly younger ages. (The study author proposed that insulin spikes might be the culprit.)
But do these drinks deserve to be singled out? Aren’t sugary foods like cookies and donuts — not to mention many cereals and even granola bars — equal villains? After all, studies have linked a high-sugar diet to heart disease, diabetes, liver disease and even dementia.
Earlier this week the Washington Post reported that San Francisco may soon pass an unusual ordinance: It would require warning labels on billboards that advertise soda and even Starbucks Frappuccinos. According to the Post, the warning would read, “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.” It would appear on other advertisements as well as billboards, according to the Wall Street Journal.
I talked to two experts for their thoughts on the matter: Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author of several books on nutrition, and David Katz, MD, director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, who writes frequently on nutrition and the American diet.
The bottom line: Cutting out sugary drinks can’t hurt, and they're an easy target if you want to scale back on sugar and unnecessary calories. But as we’ve so often heard, there are really no “good” or “bad” foods, only “good” or “bad” dietary patterns.
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“There is no single food or nutrient eaten in moderation that you can finger with certainty for overweight and obesity,” says Ward. “That said, if you are taking in lots of extra calories as added sugar, then cutting back on regular soda is a boon to health. The same goes for extra calories from fat and protein, too.”
Katz holds a similar viewpoint. “The problems in the modern food supply are systemic, and the best approach to eating better should be systemic as well. We can, and should, trade up virtually all of our choices to wholesome, minimally processed foods close to nature. The best of such foods have an ingredient list just one word long — such as banana, or broccoli, watermelon, or water — and there is no place to hide added sugar there! In general, the shorter the ingredient list, the less cover for mischief.”
An easy, worthy target
Still, if you’re ready to improve your diet, cutting out sugary drinks isn’t a bad starting point, says Katz.
“A reliable body of research links intake of such beverages to excesses of both sugar and calories, and in turn to obesity and its complications, such as diabetes. Unlike most foods, these beverages provide no nutritional value as partial compensation for the high cost in sugar and calories, and are far less satiating than solid foods… meaning these are calories that tend not to fill us up. As a result, soda calories may simply be added to all others, rather than displacing some.”
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The problem with warning labels
“As much as I dislike low-nutrient foods filled with added sugar, warning labels on beverages are a slippery slope,” says Ward. “I am afraid that, eventually, we will throw the baby out with the bathwater. What's next? Will the next warning be about the naturally occurring sugar in whole fruit and 100 percent fruit smoothies, foods that offer an array of nutrients?”
“In addition, it's unfair to warn people off of sugary drinks, but not donuts, cookies, candy and cake,” she says.
Katz puts it this way: “Arguments by food industry elements that confronting the contribution of their product to obesity and chronic disease is unreasonable because they are not the entire problem are like arguments that sandbags are useless because no one of them contains a flood. But the levee to defend us from the obesigenic flood needs to start somewhere, and sugar-sweetened beverages are, for many reasons, a good place to start stacking sandbags.“
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