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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Sugar Soda an easy target.

by Stephen Propatier

January 16, 2013

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Donate A major US Soda/pop/cola bottler is coming out with a feel good series of "Healthy Choice" ads for the thoughtful consumer. Sugar beverages have been feeling the pinch of the media's less than skeptical eye for dietary pseudoscience. Trans fats, sugar beverages, high fructose corn syrup, organic food, and other assorted diet pseudoscience has primed the public to accept an easy premise. Sugar Soda is making us fat.

Sure soda can make us fat, but is really more unhealthy than lets say a latte, or a smoothy? Soda is being singled out as a direct obesity factor. Seems on the surface like low hanging fruit. The US diet certainly would benefit from fewer "empty" calories in the diet. Soda certainly seems to be an empty calorie drink. Unfortunately like most dietary/obesity issues, the easy solution, is often the wrong solution.

Full disclosure here, I was a soda junkie at one time. I loved the stuff in the red can, with the polar bear in the commercial. Trademark name left out on purpose. Prior to 2008 my BMI was 44, very considerable. I drank probably anywhere from 2-10, 12 oz/.35L cans per day or equivalent. In 2008 I did a dedicated weight loss program and I lost more than 100lbs/45.36KG. One key diet change, to lose the weight, was minimizing sugar beverages. Today I drink no more than 12oz/.35L on average a month. I still enjoy it, I just don't drink it like it is a dietary staple anymore. My BMI is 29 now which I have maintained for the last 5 years. In my opinion stopping the soda party probably lost me at least 30lbs of initial weight. Still losing the weight was much more complicated that stopping soda. Media health reports always grate on me when they focus on the nutrient rather than the real issue. Too many calories not enough exercise.

In the US sugar soda has become the ultimate dietary boogeyman. All the food pseudoscience fears rolled into one. Big corporation, mass produced, unnatural, not locally grown, chemical additives, and "Gulp"even High Fructose Corn syrup. I mean you can basically organize every advocate of dietary woo into one big drum circle on this one. To this woo we add the very real issues of tooth decay, concentrated calories, and sodium. You could ask the question, why oh why would anyone ever drink a carbonated sugar sweetened beverage? Short answer is, people like the way they taste. There is nothing inherently evil or bad about any particular type of dietary sweet. People like them, they make our primate brains very happy.

Is one dietary sweet inherently more dangerous than any other? No not really. What is the nutritional difference between a peanut butter cup, a popsicle, a cupcake, a lollipop and a soda pop? Nutritionally, they are different, slightly. Some of these items have calorie dense fat in them, but they are all what I would call "empty" calories. Not much nutrition present. Still, healthy or overweight, people will occasionally partake of one of these little dietary disasters. So why is soda pop a problem, and what makes it different?

The advertising campaign is causing the news outlets to dredge up an oft quoted article from the New England Journal of Medicine. It concluded a correlation between the so called "fat genes" and weight gain with soda. The study alluded to the fact that the number of fat alleles correlated with higher weight gain and a greater number of sugary sodas. My analysis, it is an opinion about a collection of data not a controlled study. The data shows increased number of obesity genes correlate with increased sugar soda intake and corresponding weight gain. So...people who have a genetic disposition to be fat, drink more sugar soda, than people without the gene. Not ground breaking. I'll bet we could pull retrospective data from this study showing that they consume more of many food items.

The author's summary and title proposes that the sugar soda somehow triggered a greater weight gain response in people with more "fat gene" alleles. I would say that there is equal evidence that people who have fat genes drink a lot of soda. The primary investigator Dr Hu was quoted as""Two bad things can act together and their combined effects are even greater than either effect alone," Hu said. "The flip side of this is everyone has some genetic risk of obesity, but the genetic effects can be offset by healthier beverage choices. It's certainly not our destiny" to be fat, even if we carry genes that raise this risk." The author was trying portray a balanced version of the data. This balanced view is not how this study has been presented. Media science reporting has focused on one part. Reports have alluded to the idea that sugar soda somehow triggers a genetic response resulting in greater weight gain. Which is science fantasy.

Obviously liquid sugar is not a good dietary option for an obese population. Making food choices that are less calorie dense, and higher in fiber are more healthful. I will tell you that forcing better drink choices does not improve outcomes. Especially if the overconsumption behavior remains unchanged. 8oz of Orange Juice would be an example of a healthier choice. Nutritionally it has fiber, vitamins, all sorts of good stuff. No high fructose corn syrup, fresh squeezed and completely "Natural". OJ has 112 calories per 8 oz. Cola has only 97 calories. No matter how much better OJ is for your health, drinking 2 liters a day will slow any weight loss program.

News outlets like compelling narratives. Sugared soda forcing you to be extra fat is a compelling narrative. Add in a big faceless corporation making money off of your genetic problem and you have news gold. Compelling narrative yes, but not the truth. Plus it has a real negative psychological imperative. Allowing people with weight problems to divorce weight gain from their behavior is disingenuous and fatally flawed. The problem is not the soda, it is uncontrolled calorie intake.

Insinuating that poor health choices are somehow genetic and out of your control contributes to worsening abuse. I like to call it "I can't" syndrome. I can't lose weight because of X. Pick your excuse I can't exercise(you only lose 5% weight by exercise alone), I have low thyroid(Treated with medicine), I don't have the time( yet the same people will talk about the football game they watched on Sunday), the list goes on. If you give an obese person a plausible excuse they will utilize it. Soda is making you fat is just another quick poor solution. Should it be taxed, restricted, or eliminated? The health benefit for any of those options is at best tenuous. The ban on trans fat has zero health impact on overall american health or obesity.

Soda will only make you fat if you drink too much of it. It is just another food item. Moderation is the key for every diet program. The problem is not that you drink soda, rather is is that you drink a gallon of soda. If you can only buy 12oz cans instead of a 20oz bottle you will buy two cans. I did it all the time. It will not result in any appreciable change in behavior. People who make bad health choices will gravitate to another bad choice. Especially if you convince them that the calories are not at fault. Outlaw soda and over-eaters may switch to a latte, 190 calories per 12 oz serving. Just one example of many. Portion control and prudent diet choice is more important than any particular nutrient. Attacking the soda manufacturer is pop culture nonsense and should not be encouraged.

See your doctor and make sure you do not have a metabolic disease or a underlying health issue. Then take a look in the mirror and realize that total calories and not enough exercise is the reason why you are overweight. No excuses, no fads, no crazy diets. Simple equation, burn more calories than you eat and you will lose weight. I don't care what you eat. If you find a way to be satiated by eating less calories you will lose weight. Finding a eating pattern that you can maintain long term is the way to do it forever. Picking on any nutrient is a distraction and pointless. Law of conservation of mass, you cannot gain a pound if you eat an ounce of cake, period. Long term it is our behavior that we need to change. Make soda a treat not a staple. That should be the focus of education. Not nutrient X is making you fat.

We should be reinforcing portion control, moderation, exercise, and high fiber low fat diets. It is not easy, and it is not a easy conversation to have with someone. Giving them a lie because it easier, fails to help obese people and allows them to accept that nothing can be done.

by Stephen Propatier

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