The Cola War

Cutting back on soft drinks ' or eliminating them completely ' could be a big boost to your health.

Down in the sweltering hot South, folks routinely quench their thirst with an ice-cold soda; lots of people order a soft drink with just about every meal, and some even start the day with a cola. With "super-sized" drinks and "Big Gulps" available at fast-food joints and convenience stores everywhere, more and more kids are guzzling them down at a young age. Recent studies, however, show that consuming too may of these carbonated beverages ' even sugar-free ones ' may actually be hazardous to your health.

Local nutrition experts say one of the most severe consequences of overindulging in these fizzy drinks is metabolic syndrome. In the July edition of Circulation, an American Heart Association journal, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and his associates reported that middle-aged adults who drank more than one carbonated soft drink per day had a 48 percent higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome compared to infrequent drinkers. Metabolic syndrome is defined as having three or more of the following metabolic derangements: excess fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, reduced high-density lipoproteins (the "good" cholesterol) and higher insulin resistance. Surprisingly, this finding applied to intake of both regular and diet drinks.

"The conclusion in the article, based on all of the studies, was that in the large community-based sample of middle-aged adults, soft drink consumption was associated with a higher risk of developing adverse metabolic traits in a metabolic syndrome," explains Amber C. Faul, a clinical dietitian and licensed nutritionist at Lafayette General Medical Center.

Younger individuals are at risk as well. School kids, who are the biggest consumers of soda, are vulnerable to diseases associated with obesity, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This is not surprising, considering that one 12-ounce can of soda has almost nine teaspoons of sugar and about 150 calories. With the average consumer drinking almost two of these beverages daily, that translates to about 2,000 calories per week.

"The colas contain high-fructose corn syrup, which is what makes them so sweet," explains Nichole Barras, a lifestyle consultant at the City Club at River Ranch. "There is little nutrition, and there are lots of calories in high-fructose corn syrup, which is also in a lot of products that we are unaware of."

According to the National Soft Drink Association, Americans daily consume an average of more than 600 12-ounce servings of soda, or 1.6 cans, each year. Beverage Digest reports that overall sales of soft drinks were 10.2 billion cases in 2005. Males ages 12-29 are the biggest gulpers, consuming more than 160 gallons per year, or almost two quarts daily.

And don't even think you can lose weight by drinking diet colas because the artificially-sweetened beverages may increase your desire for sweet foods. "The diet sodas can make people gain weight," Barras notes. "We are taking in artificial sweeteners that can actually make us store more fat and eat more food."

Yet another problem associated with sodas is tooth decay. Sugary soft drinks lead to increased cavities and tooth loss. Diet colas are not necessarily safer ' acids in both regular and sugar-free drinks can erode tooth enamel. "If you think about it, don't we pour cola on battery acid in order to get it to eat it up?" Faul observes. "So, think about that acid eating the enamel off of your teeth." Additionally, both sugary and diet beverages can contribute to osteoporosis. Soft drinks contain a high level of phosphorous, which can deplete bone calcium and lead to bone fractures. A study of 460 high school girls published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine in June of 2000 indicated that sodas were "highly" associated with bone fractures. "The acid ph in colas is approximately 3.4, which is strong enough to dissolve teeth and bones," Barras says.

Many regular and diet drinks contain caffeine, which acts as a diuretic that could dehydrate your body ' and it can be addictive, leading to irritability, anxiety, insomnia and even heart irregularities. Moreover, when consumers decrease caffeine intake, they might experience withdrawal, producing symptoms such as headache, fatigue and inability to work. "Caffeine is a vasodilator," Faul explains. "So, when you don't drink the caffeine and your body is used to it, it constricts those vessels, which causes that headache from caffeine withdrawal."

Perhaps most notable is that drinking a lot of colas leaves little room for good liquids, such as plain old H20 ' the best you can drink ' and other beverages like juice and milk. This deprives the body of important nutrients, particularly calcium and vitamins C and D.

"If you are drinking one or two diet sodas a day, in my opinion, I don't think you are at risk for any type of detrimental disease," Barras says.

"So, really, the key is everything in moderation," Faul adds. "One 12-ounce soft drink a day is not bad. You just want to make sure you are getting your fluids. If you are drinking caffeinated beverages, make sure you are drinking water to counteract that."