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What You Drink Impacts Your Diet, Part Six: Soda

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At our last stop on this beverage expedition we took a rather long and disturbing detour, an inside look into the dairy industry –– the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, it was brought to my attention that I didn’t quite address whether or not drinking milk is good or bad. The answer is, unless you are a baby or young child, in my opinion, milk is over-rated and should not be part of your daily liquid consumption in large quantities, especially if you consider the saturated fat and lactose (a type of sugar) that is found in milk. Yet, using milk in your cereal, oatmeal, coffee, etc. in small amounts is fine, unless of course you are lactose-intolerant. Keep in mind there are also alternatives to dairy milk like soy, rice and almond milk.

Today’s beverage stop is emotionally lighter, yet it could be heavier to your body. We will tackle one of the most popular liquid choices in America, soda –– a drink that does its fair share of damage to health and fitness. Drinking soda is one of America's biggest diet debacles and one that warrants a “diet villain” label –– both diet and regular. This is due to the fact that this is where your beverages get "real sticky" –– as in way too much sugar and artificial sweeteners, which are the main ingredients found in soda. 

Sugar and artificial sweeteners are relevant to number five, SODA, of the nine liquid categories I've laid out to analyze and move you toward the "fit path" when it comes to your beverage choices. Although our journey has been quite pleasant (other than the "cow stop"), at this point you may need a little shove because sugar and artificial sweeteners are also pertinent to numbers six through eight –– other soft drinks, juices, and meal replacement drinks.

Sugar and sugar derivatives:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a report by MedicineNet.com, Americans consume "one hundred and fifty-six pounds of sugar each year on a per capita basis." Quite amazing! The reason is not just from adding "table sugar" to your food and drinks –– a common diet mistake –– but the fact that highly refined sugar is found in most packaged, processed, and man-made food items. And, it comes in many forms like; sucrose (table sugar), dextrose (corn sugar), high-fructose corn syrup, etc. Unfortunately, today sugar and sugar derivatives are not just found in cookies, candy and soda; it is everywhere from your cereal, bread, crackers, dairy products, mayonnaise, peanut butter, ketchup, pasta sauce, to a plethora of frozen, canned foods, and so called "fat-free" products. The list is endless.  

Sugar has rightly drawn harsh criticism, and some nutrition experts are heralding "dire consequences" from suppressing the immune system to hyperactivity and hundreds of ways that it can ruin your health. While some of the "perils of sugar" are true, others need more thorough evaluation. However, there is no disputing the fact that refined sugar is a source of empty calories (void of nutritional value), and consuming excessive amounts has its cost; it can worsen cholesterol levels, can easily lead to weight gain, and is a factor in our obesity epidemic, which has plenty of its own health penalties. 

Artificial sweeteners:

To this day there is a great deal of controversy surrounding artificial sweeteners (Sweet'N Low, NutraSweet, Splenda, and others), and some nutritionists and fitness experts like Dr. Mercola –– a very influential "health guru" and best-selling author –– deem them as "poison" when consumed in excess.

Interestingly, MedicineNet.com states, "For every compelling positive argument in favor of using these sweeteners, there is an equally compelling negative argument opposing their use." Widely circulated reports have suggested that some sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin, carry serious health implications, including an increased risk of cancer. Yet, in 2008 the Mayo Clinic reported that the "Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the American Dietetic Association, the National Cancer Institute, and others agree that no evidence supports these claims." However, they do warn that "that consuming foods with low-calorie sweeteners may result in an overall increase in calorie intake and weight gain."

Keep in mind, some of these "fake" sugars have not been on the market long enough to confirm whether or not they are truly safe and at what levels. Despite any FDA approval, I am very skeptical and my advice is to error on the side of caution –– use artificial sweeteners rarely if at all.  

What else is found in soda and what are the possible damages?

If you've read one soda label, you've pretty much read them all. Coca-Cola (Classic) ingredients include carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors, and caffeine. On the other hand, Diet Coke contains carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate (to protect taste), natural flavors, citric acid, and caffeine. Other ingredients found in soda are sodium citrate, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, ascorbic acid, and dyes like Red 40. 

In researching the dangers of soda, you will find an array of reasons not to drink it, which include weight gain and obesity, diabetes, weakened bones and risk for osteoporosis, dental issues, kidney damage, increased blood pressure, contributor to heartburn, impaired digestion, dehydration, excessive caffeine intake, toxins from aspartame, and so on.  

In 2001, PreventDisease.com took aim at four key "soda targets," in order to separate the fact from fiction, specifically in relation to our kids, who are guzzling soda at unprecedented rates. 

  1. Obesity: The report shows that "a team of Harvard researchers presented the first evidence linking soft drink consumption to childhood obesity." They found that "schoolchildren who drank soft drinks consumed almost 200 more calories per day than their counterparts who didn't down soft drinks." 
  2. Tooth decay: The report states, "numerous studies –– using children and adults –– have shown a direct link between tooth decay and soft drinks." They also noted "sugar isn't the only ingredient in soft drinks that causes tooth problems, "the acids in soda pop are also notorious for etching tooth enamel in ways that can lead to cavities." 
  3. Caffeine dependence: Apparently, "the stimulant properties and dependence potential of caffeine in soda are well documented, as are their effects on children."
  4. Weakened bones and osteoporosis: PreventDisease.com notes that "rat studies point to clear and consistent bone loss with the use of cola beverages" and also shared a 1994 Harvard study, where "[14-year-old] girls who drank cola were about five times more likely to suffer bone fractures than girls who didn't consume soda pop." Web MD confirms the connection between soda and osteoporosis, citing research done by Tufts University. Researchers studied several thousand men and women, and found that women, who regularly drank three or more a day cola-based sodas, had almost 4% lower bone mineral density in the hip.  According to the lead study author Katherine Tucker, PhD, "phosphoric acid, a major component in most sodas, may be to blame [for the lower bone mineral density)]." WebMD notes that, "phosphorus itself is an important bone mineral, but if you're getting a disproportionate amount of phosphorus compared to the amount of calcium you're getting, that could lead to bone loss." They also add, "another possible culprit is caffeine, which experts have long known can interfere with calcium absorption."  

Is diet soda better than regular?

While you may save yourself around 200 calories a "pop," there are a multitude of drawbacks to consider when choosing diet soda over regular –– as presented in this article and by conducting your own investigation.  

Furthermore, David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, Harvard Professor, in his article –– Artificially Sweetened Beverages Cause for Concern, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in December 2009, challenges the notion that artificial sweeteners are risk free and he makes three important points:

  1. Our body gets confused by artificial sweeteners 
  2. We’re “Infantilizing” our taste sense 
  3. Long term effects unclear 

And, if you think that just because you drink "diet soda," you are immune from weight gain, think again.  Surprisingly (not to those of us in the fitness industry), a 2005 study reported by WebMD declares, "people who drink diet soft drinks don't lose weight. In fact, they gain weight." Seemingly, diet soda may not be the direct cause of weight gain and obesity, but it does give a false sense of "dieting" and a license to splurge in other areas.  

Bottom line on soda: 

What you drink does impact your diet –– positively and negatively, and the evidence is clear, drinking soda –– diet or regular –– is not good for your health or fitness level, especially if you are consuming more than one a day –– and warning for those "six-pack a day" people.  But will having a soda from time to time "kill" you?  I don't think so. How do I know this?  Because one of my vices is Diet Coke and I'm still alive to write about it. That being said, as a 30-year veteran in the fitness industry and a retired fitness competitor, drinking soda –– diet or regular –– is not what I recommend on your "fit path," particularly if your goals involve weight loss and optimal health.  

If you abstain from soda altogether –– a wise choice –– there are other sugary drinks you may be consuming that deserve careful consideration.  These include other soft drinks like Kool-aid and Crystal Light, sports drinks like Gatorade, and juice boxes, which will be our next STOP.

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About Christine Lakatos

  • Igor Griffiths

    As someone who hates to gym style exercise, swimming lengths irritates me, why bother going to the other end just to swim back again! I managed to lose 4 waist inches using a low carb diet whilst my foot was dead for 3 months due to a trapped nerve after exercising on a rowing machine.

    However my digestinal tract is now hyper sensitive to polyols as result of switching my body to lower carb diet, so I have to avoid a lot of sugar free foods.

    As regards diet drinks, especially the colas I would much rather drink water, but half the time at vending machines, its cola or nothing and then its back to the addiction with cola and caffeine. At my worst I was drinking 6 litres of Diet Coke most weekends.

    Whatever you eat it would always be better to choose the real food item and avoid the foods that need science degrees to understand.

    However, being a healthy eater does not make me a good consumer and therefore the market will try and keep me addicted to cola and fast food, it is doing well.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Still no answer Christine?

    Oh and I want to apologize for not reading your article all the way through. But, now that I have, I am quite disappointed that you would take the alarmist / conspiracy route that you have in regards to artificial sweeteners. I could care less about the amount of books that Dr. Mercola has sold. His site screams of marketing propaganda based on fear & intimidation by way of conspiracies… Please, spare us.

    Again, I agree that no one should base their beverage intake solely on ones with artificial sweeteners(Moderation is key),but, to infer that this stuff could cause cancer without any hard evidence to prove it is, well, irresponsible. And, even though you try to dismiss your own involvement in perpetuating this propaganda by stating “to err on the side of caution” is rather pretentious.

    All I know is that right now, at this moment, that:

    “Aspartame, the sweetening ingredient in Equal has been documented in more than 200 objective scientific studies. The safety of aspartame has been confirmed by regulatory authorities in more than 100 countries, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food, as well as by experts with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization”

    And Splenda:

    “has been the subject of extensive safety testing, with more than 20 years of research and over 110 scientific studies. Its safety is well documented and the Food and Drug Administration, along with regulatory, health, and food safety authorities from around the world, have concluded that it is safe.”

    So your claim that some of these “fake” sugars,“have not been on the market long enough to confirm whether or not they are truly safe and at what levels.” is,again, irresponsible and shows your lack of research.

    Sorry Christine, I just don’t appreciate that kind of propaganda or speculation from a fitness trainer / nutritionist.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    *Oops* I also meant to add:

    If you really are concerned about weight management issues when having dairy products, but you still enjoy them, have them in the morning for breakfast.

    Secondly, I really don’t see the difference between supporting the consumption of yogurt & cottage cheese but not milk…can you explain?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Still, that doesn’t change the fact that you could have weight issues if you eat too much fruit.Especially, if you choose the juice route or canned fruits. Again, moderation is the key (along with a proper exercise plan).

    As for your opinion about milk, I believe it totally depends on what your idea of a healthy diet really is. If you’re looking to just to be thin with no concern about strength training then, in my opinion, that doesn’t really support any of the claims that all fat is bad for you nor is it necessarily healthy either.

    When someone merely focuses on cutting out their fat intake but overlooks the amount of protein their cutting out as well then they really are doing a disservice to their body. Milk has plenty of nutrients that have been proven beneficial to a diet that includes a strength training regiment which isn’t limited to just heavy duty bodybuilders. Again, skinny doesn’t equate to healthy…

  • Yes, Brian, I agree. However, with fruit you get some vitamins and minerals, while “white sugar” is empty (stripped of all it’s nutritional value). And if you eat whole fruit you get the added fiber. Again, not so with “white sugar.”

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Nice Article….

    Though, I still argue that anything in excess can be very bad for you. With that in mind, your next article should cover 100% fruit juice because sugar IS sugar. Your body converts all sugars into fat and it doesn’t discriminate nor can it tell the difference between glucose or fructose.

    So, people shouldn’t feel safe in consuming an excess amount of fruit just because it is natural.