Is Your Soda Killing You? Why Mayor Bloomberg Got It Right

Mary Poppins may have had the best intentions in mind, but if "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," the new mantra is "no sodas today keeps the doctor away."
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"A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." We all remember this quote from Mary Poppins but, in fact, if you do the math, while a few spoonfuls of sugar each day is OK (six of them is about 100 calories, if level spoonfuls), drinking or eating 20 or more spoonfuls each day is extremely bad for our health. The sad reality is that far too many of us are unknowingly doing exactly that -- in the inadvertent form of soda consumption.

Sixteen ounces of sodas may harm you. Overall, experts say that we should be eating between 1,750 and 2,100 calories a day, and of these calories, the normal recommendation is that men restrict themselves to 150 calories of sugar each day and women to 100 calories of sugar. It's important to note that this calorie count includes foods that naturally contain sugar but are deemed nutritious for you, like fruit. To put this into perspective, a single can of soda (which we know is not nutritious) has 130 calories of sugar alone, and most soft drinks out there have hundreds more. Mayor Bloomberg's recent New York City restriction to 16 ounces of soda is already twice the sugar most of us should drink, and I couldn't agree with his decision more.

We don't need any direct sugar. The American Heart Association has a good article pointing out that most of us don't need any direct sugar. We get plenty from a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables and grains and, in fact, a bowl of most sliced fruit runs under 100 calories and at most, 170. We have a fixed amount of calories we can ingest each day without gaining weight, and much of them should be coming from vegetables, fruits, dairy, protein and grains. For most of us, almost anything we eat routinely that is based on sugar (cookies, cake, sodas, iced teas) is likely to be junk calories and come at the expense of something that we need, is actually good for us and, arguably, tastes better.

The numbers are bad. The soft drink industry tells us that the average amount of calories from sugary drinks isn't that worrying, as the average male drinks 178 calories and the average female 103; this, however, is incredibly misleading. Only about 50 percent of us actually even drink sugar drinks, and of those who do, about 33 percent of us consume more than 400 calories per day, with a small number consuming an incredible 1,000 calories per day or 50 percent of their total required daily calories. Do the math. This means that almost 50 million Americans get way too many calories from sugar.

The metabolic syndrome. If this were merely a matter of too many calories and weight gain, it would be bad enough. Being overweight is correlated with metabolic syndrome. This charming condition, as the New York Times points out, is:

... a major, if not the major, risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate that some 75 million Americans have metabolic syndrome. For those who have heart attacks, metabolic syndrome will very likely be the reason. The first symptom doctors are told to look for in diagnosing metabolic syndrome is an expanding waistline. This means that if you're overweight, there's a good chance you have metabolic syndrome, and this is why you're more likely to have a heart attack or become diabetic (or both) than someone who's not.

All in all, the metabolic syndrome is bad stuff.

Cancer. As it turns out, eating/drinking too much sugar is worse. Sugar has been more directly related to diabetes than obesity itself. Mark Bittman of the New York Times recently reported on a study that showed that "after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population's food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity." So drinking one of those 7-Eleven Big Gulps not only causes weight gain, but it's likely to increase our risk of developing diabetes, even more than the extra weight alone might otherwise do.

An extremely careful and balanced article in the New York Times about the risks of sugar actually suggests that in addition to diabetes, there is increased risk of cancer associated with over-consumption of processed sugar. The bulk of the article points out the correlation of over-consumption of sugar with insulin resistance, which is a sign of metabolic syndrome, but we are then presented with a fairly terrifying quote:

One of the diseases that increases in incidence with obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome is cancer ... The connection between obesity, diabetes and cancer was first reported in 2004, in large population studies by researchers from the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is not controversial. What it means is that people are more likely to get cancer if they're obese or diabetic than if you're not, and more likely to get cancer if you have metabolic syndrome than if you don't.

Remember, two cans of soda a day is over-consumption of sugar. So is a big soda at 7-Eleven or your favorite movie theatre or sports venue. So, in general, more than 8 ounces of soda a day increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. A small bowl of sliced peaches or strawberries, or your favorite fruit, on the other hand, will give you enough sugar, be a nice desert and actually be good for you.

All in all, the lesson here is that we don't need to drink our sugar, let alone over-consume it. We can get all we want and need from healthy options such as a sliced fruit. Mary Poppins may have had the best intentions in mind, but if "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," the new mantra is "no sodas today keeps the doctor away."

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