Too Sweet for Our Own Good
The pitfalls of sugary drinks
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
In your column you encourage hydration and drinking plenty of fluids. Our teenage son loves drinking soft drinks, but he has gained a lot of weight. How do we balance the counsel we receive on drinking adequate amounts of liquids, especially as we see our son now struggling with his weight?
When we encourage the intake of fluids, we’re referring primarily to drinking pure water. As you point out, many people, both young and old, are drinking increasing amounts of soft drinks (also known as sodas or sugar-sweetened beverages [SSBs]). These drinks are laden with refined sugars and are fueling the epidemics of obesity and diabetes throughout the world. Significant consequences result, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
As part of a Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, a recent scientific publication analyzed 114 national dietary surveys. These data were representative of more than 60 percent of the world’s population. Regarding SSBs, there was marked variation in the average consumption, ranging from less than one drink per day in elderly Chinese women to more than five drinks per day in young Cuban males.
The investigators first determined the relationship of sugary-drink intake to body mass index, or BMI. The BMI is the relationship of height to weight; a BMI above 25 is regarded as overweight, and a BMI above 30 is regarded as obese. We encourage you to determine your own BMI; knowing your numbers is very motivating when it comes to making lifestyle choices and changes.
The GBD study revealed that worldwide more than 180,000 deaths annually are related to consuming large amounts of sugary beverages. The majority of the deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. Mexico had the greatest number of deaths related to drinking sugary drinks, with 318 deaths per million adults; Japan had the lowest per capita rates, with about 10 related deaths per million adults.
What is the reason for this frightening relationship between sugary drinks and death rates? As the consumption of sugary drinks increases, the BMI goes up (accelerating the obesity epidemic). The elevated BMI increases the occurence of heart disease, diabetes, and cancers related to obesity, namely, breast, uterine, esophageal, gallbladder, colorectal, kidney, and pancreatic cancers.
The intake of sugary drinks also adversely affects blood pressure. The International Study of Macro/Micronutrients and Blood Pressure (INTERMAP) published this finding in the journal Hypertension, February 28, 2011: Consumption of even one SSB increased blood pressure. Consumption of two to three cans of soda resulted in a more significant increase in blood pressure. This is especially problematic in people who have hypertension as blood pressure control becomes more difficult. Nonsweetened beverages, however, had the opposite effect.
What about artificial sweeteners? While in a restaurant in Europe we asked what sugar-free beverages were available? Without a moment’s hesitation—and with an obvious twinkle in his eye—the server responded, “We have pure water, sirs!” That line has never been forgotten. Pure, clean water is the best beverage by far, and we all would do well to drink it in healthful and plentiful amounts.
The data on artificial sweeteners is mixed, with some evidence showing benefits in preventing weight gain; however, there is an additional component: often people who use artificial sweeteners think they have more room for additional calories in liquid or solid forms and pack on the weight and develop diabetes anyway!
Adventist churches worldwide could take the lead in ensuring clean and secure water sources in their local communities, making every church a community health center. Wherever we live, we would do well to limit the use of plastic bottles, which have become such a horrific source of pollution and a health threat. As communities witness our caring and responsible approach, a desire will grow in their hearts to be introduced to the Water of Life, our loving and gracious Lord Jesus.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.