We Americans love our sugary drinks, and research suggests it's probably no coincidence that people who down a lot of them tend to have an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. Now a new study found the more sugary drinks people drank, the more deep belly fat — the most dangerous kind of fat, linked to diabetes and heart disease — they had, regardless of how much they exercised.

“This study adds another piece of evidence to the growing body of research suggesting sugar-sweetened beverages may be harmful to our health,” wrote lead study author Caroline Fox, MD, MPH, in an American Heart Association (AHA) news release.

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The study looked at 1,003 people around 45 years old who are part of the ongoing Framingham Heart Study. The researchers took a scan of people's fat deposits at the beginning of the study and at the end, six years later. Those with a daily sugary drink habit gained an extra 1.8 pounds of deep belly fat, aka visceral fat — enough to raise their risk of metabolic problems such as diabetes, according to the authors.

The fat that undermines your organs

What’s so bad about visceral fat? Unlike the fat directly under the skin, visceral fat wraps around the internal organs in the abdomen, including the liver and pancreas. Scientists think too much visceral fat interferes with the function of hormones such as insulin and causes body-wide inflammation. This inflammation contributes to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and may even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and some types of cancer.

No one knows exactly how soda and other sugary drinks raise the risk of excess visceral fat and certain diseases. Study co-leader Jiantao Ma, MD, PhD, told the AHA added sugars may contribute to insulin resistance, an imbalance that raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Drinking your daily sugar allowance

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author of "MyPlate for Moms: How to Feed You and Your Family Better," says the topic is especially timely because the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to 10 percent of total calories, about 12 teaspoons of added sugar on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Related: New U.S. Dietary Guidelines: Cut Down — Way Down — on Sugar

“On average, Americans drink nearly 50 percent of their added sugar intake, and most of that is from soda,” Ward says. “So cutting back on soda and other sugar-added beverages, such as sports drinks and energy drinks, makes a dent in added sugar intake.”

How to cut back

How If you’re having trouble giving up soda, Ward suggests giving yourself some time "to lose your taste for its intense sweetness.”

“You can gradually wean yourself from regular and diet soda to drinks like flavored seltzer water or plain water,” she says. “Keep a jug of plain water and sliced citrus fruits, such as orange, lemon, and lime, in the refrigerator to help entice you to drink water instead of sugary drinks. Make your own iced tea so that you can control the amount of sugar you put in it instead of buying it prepackaged.”

Related: Are You Eating More Sugar Than You Think?

Ward adds not to keep soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks in the house “to reduce the temptation to drink them.”

The new study found no link between diet soda and visceral fat, but health educator Elaine Herscher, co-author of "Generation Extra Large: Rescuing Our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity," urges people to avoid diet soda as well.

“Don’t turn to diet soda, which studies have found is filled with chemicals that increase inflammation and can lead to a host of other problems,” she says. “The best step is to swap soda for drinks that can provide similar satisfaction, like sparkling water. Many come with natural flavors but no added sweeteners.”

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Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.